When I open my front door and look across the street, I’m looking at the front door of Alan and Nancy Saturn’s house. No matter how much time passes, it’s always going to be their house. It was, for nearly 30 years, a neighborhood institution — the best parties, the best conversations, the best food. The Saturns’ front door stayed open, high notes of opera wafting out over the flower beds, interesting people milling around in the driveway, their three beautiful daughters coming and going, and later the beautiful grandchildren. But everything ends. Alan died in 2009, Nancy in 2010. By that time the daughters had moved away. And then the house was on the market.
For those of us in the neighborhood, the house kept its sheen, as if the light of the Saturns still occupied the rooms. But the furniture, the fabulous artwork, all of Nancy’s shoes — they were packed up and carted away. The house didn’t sell. A housesitter was installed. She thought she heard burglars in the attic, but no one robs a house from the attic. Then a wave of fleas swept down the stairs. The possums, which had infested the third floor when the house sat empty, were infested themselves.
There was a Sunday afternoon when I stood on the sidewalk with a neighbor and we contemplated buying the place ourselves, fixing it up. It had been on the market too long. But the next day it sold and freed us from our good intentions.
The new owners could never live up to our expectations. They were not the one thing we needed them to be, which was the Saturns. But the yearning of the neighbors for what we had lost was the least of their problems. They couldn’t move in. It turned out the smart addition that had been built many years before had no actual foundation, and the downspouts drained under the house. Half the wiring was still knob-and-tube, and the other half was rigged, and when the electricians came to rip it all out, the third floor caught fire. I stood at my bedroom window and watched the fire trucks close down the street.
Which is not to say that The Washington Post has been operating with faulty wiring or that a greatly respected family is the cause of disrepair. It is to say that taking over an institution that is venerable, essential, beloved and failing is a thankless task and a substantial risk, and that maybe I should thank my new neighbors for saving the house even as they changed it. And maybe we’ll have Jeff Bezos to thank for saving The Post.
I realize that I’m extending optimism and goodwill without knowing Bezos’s vision for the paper. I also realize that optimism and goodwill toward Bezos may seem a little strange coming from me, a spokesperson for independent bookstores and someone who is forever climbing up on a chair to rail against Amazon.
When Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in November 2011, it wasn’t because I was dying to go into retail. I already had a job, as Bezos already has a job. But I believed in bookstores and their importance to writers and communities. Physical bookstores and all they represent are worth saving as far as I’m concerned, and so I got out my checkbook.
Everyone said I had to be an idiot for opening a bookstore in the age of Amazon and e-readers, but I was never deterred. I was in it for love, not logic. And since the only thing dumber than buying a bookstore is buying a newspaper, I have to imagine that Bezos must care about the fate of newspapers in general, and about the jewel that is The Post in particular. Otherwise he could have just as easily bought a football team.
Bezos has been a forceful visionary, an industry leader and often a steamroller. While I disagree fiercely with many of Amazon’s business practices, I regard Bezos as a man who makes things work.
And speaking of making things work, that bookstore we opened is doing really well in spite of Amazon, as I hope The Post will do well under its new owner.
All we can ever really count on in life is change, but still, what we like is what we know, and for the most part we would be glad if those things didn’t change at all. The only people worthy of living in the Saturns’ house were the Saturns’ daughters, but they had lives of their own. As for The Post, it seems that it should always belong to the Grahams, and so we are grateful that Katharine Weymouth is staying on as publisher.
No one gets to tell the billionaires how to spend their money, though I imagine everyone tries. Personally, I think vaccinations, education, newspapers and a theater in Lincoln Center aren’t bad choices. The billionaires aren’t as nervous as the rest of us; they can afford to take their time, wait things out. Or as Orson Welles explains it in “Citizen Kane,” a movie in which he plays a fictionalized version of a real-life newspaper baron (an easy comparison, I know, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let it pass): “You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in . . . 60 years.”
It is indisputable that there is a golden age behind The Post, but who’s to say what’s up ahead? The estimated $25 billionof Bezos’s personal wealth could buy a long life for a newspaper.
And since it’s safe to assume that Bezos is reading The Post thoroughly these days, let me offer a piece of advice that will benefit us both: Expand the book review offerings. Nothing beats newspaper reviews for selling books. And bookselling, after all, is one of the businesses we’re both in.