I got a call today from Chassman and Bem, the local independent bookstore. They've canceled the book signing I had scheduled this month--they're going out of business. I knew they weren't going to last much longer, but it still came as a blow. They've been struggling ever since Barnes & Noble came to town. But the nail in their coffin was the Borders Books and Music store that will be opening just up the block this summer. The woman who called me said morosely that a lot of the Chassman and Bem employees would probably try and get jobs there. I've set up a similar scenario in my comic strip. Madwimmin Books, the women's bookstore where some of my characters work, has been losing sales to Bunns and Noodle for years, and now a Bounders chain store is opening nearby. Stores that specialize in women's or gay or African-American books have slightly more of an edge against the chains than general-interest independent stores do, but they're still feeling the pressure. I hate the thought of closing Madwimmin down, but it's beginning to look like I'll have to eventually if I don't want my strip to become a complete anachronism. A couple weeks ago Amy and I went to visit her sister and brother-in-law in Albany, N.Y. The four of us had some time to kill while their kids were at a play, so they suggested that we all go to Barnes & Noble. Amy and I demurred, but it was Friday night and there really wasn't any other quiet place to go. On the way I tried to explain the chilling effect these stores are having on the culture. I talked about how books are just commodities to the chains, and how if a title doesn't come with an author interview on the Today show and the potential of selling a zillion copies, they won't stock it. Or else they'll order two copies, shelve them spine out, and return them to the publisher when they don't sell. I talked about how this means books that can't compete against Billy Graham's autobiography just aren't going to continue being published. I waxed apocalyptic about censorship. They listened politely, but by the time we were standing in the mellow, cappuccino-scented glow of Barnes & Noble, even I had lost interest in my arguments. The place was packed. People were lounging in comfortable chairs reading through entire books. They were sitting at tables blatantly copying information out of computer manuals. They were hauling stacks of magazines into the cafe and filling them with biscotti crumbs before returning them to the rack. The whole store had such a pleasant, populist atmosphere that it was hard to remember it's The Devil. Amy had to physically restrain me from buying a book. The spell was broken once we got back outside. I returned home and dutifully ordered the same volume from Chassman and Bem. It rained all day today. The snow is almost completely gone, except for dingy little patches here and there. The traction of spongy turf is thrilling after months of inching gingerly up the icy path to the mailbox. I feel suddenly weightless without all the snow, as if I'd just taken off a heavy backpack. The Emergency Broadcast signal keeps coming on the radio. The first time I heard it I was envisioning clouds of anthrax before I realized it was just a flood warning.