To Delete or Not to Delete -- Part II

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By Michael Katzenberg

The topic of customer privacy in the age of the USA Patriot Act -- a law that gives the FBI expanded powers to search bookstore and library records -- is a serious issue that concerns all independent booksellers, who fear the day when the FBI comes to demand information about customers' book purchases.

In the second of a two-part series, Michael Katzenberg, owner of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, discusses the issue of maintaining customer-related data under the shadow of the USA Patriot Act and his decision to purge his database to protect his customers' privacy.

We at Bear Pond Books have always been concerned about the privacy of customer records -- even prior to the Patriot Act. If a customer ever asked, we always gave assurance that our customer purchase records would never go anywhere. When we started to become aware of the implications of the Patriot Act, and the fact that more of our customers were beginning to express their concerns to us, we began to question the value of keeping these records.

We have a Readers' Club, which offers customers a 10 percent discount after purchasing $100 worth of books. At the point of sale, members' purchases are automatically recorded both in dollar amounts and by titles. When a member reaches $100, he or she starts receiving the discount with every purchase until the year anniversary of the sign-up. It is a very popular program, and many of our customers easily reach the minimum for discount.

The Readers' Club program is a valuable relationship-building tool that helps us to compete alongside large chains and online retailers. As such, when we initially started to discuss the idea of purging our records, I wanted to make sure that did not mean scratching the club.

Once we found out that Wordstock, our software vendor, could remove the book titles while still maintaining the financial aspects of the records, it seemed the logical choice to purge our files of customer purchase records. The idea being that, if we had no records to begin with, then obviously there would be none for the FBI to take.

It took us several weeks before we acted on this idea. To our knowledge, there was no law that would be violated by our conducting a "preemptive strike" (or, in this case, purge). Still, I was a bit uneasy doing this. I have a hard time letting go of things such as books, magazines, and newspapers -- customers' records seemed like one of those things that in the future I might regret losing.

However, the more I learned about the Patriot Act, the more it became obvious that it was the right thing to do for us. The staff was fully behind it, and I felt angry enough with this foolish law to act upon it. So, Linda Leehman, our manager, and a strong advocate of removing our customer purchase records, called Wordstock, and, in a couple of weeks the titles were gone.

The only difficulty in implementing the change was the fact that, though past records were purged, there was no software out there that would eliminate the need for future customer purchase record deletions. We asked Wordstock if they could solve this dilemma, and they were pretty quick in getting software developed to tackle this challenge. Now, all past records are gone, and current and future purchase records are no longer recorded automatically when a customer purchases a book.

Of course, the question arises regarding whether or not the data is really deleted when it is purged from your database. I am not in the IT business, of course, but Wordstock assured us that the records are gone, so I feel confident that they are truly deleted.

Aside from the technical aspect, we felt it crucial to communicate with our customers regarding our decision. We accomplished this simply through talking with them, and also through a flyer we gave out at the front counter that explained our privacy policy and Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Fortunately, our community has been pretty aware of the issue. I wrote a letter to our local newspaper urging people to support a resolution stating opposition to the Patriot Act. I also spoke on a panel held in a nearby town. Many customers found out about this through the media.

Initially, I thought we were protecting our customers and ourselves and that would be that. But a savvy editor at Seven Days, a terrific cultural weekly out of Burlington, ran a little piece that a lot of people saw. Soon, thereafter, a local AP reporter, seeing that article, interviewed me and did a much larger story, which ended up running in papers all across the country. So the word got out.

The feedback about our decision has been amazing. Our own community has been very supportive and has thanked us profusely. Likewise, we have received hundreds of letters and e-mails from across the country, most of them positive. The negative ones have been very nasty, but, fortunately, they were far outweighed by the positive ones. This shows that there is a large group of people who understand the threat to our civil liberties that this act represents.

The issue seems to strike a chord across the political spectrum as we even received a call from [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay's office wanting to bestow some sort of an honor. A very generous person sent a check of $100 -- which was turned over to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) -- and a local coffee company is sending some coffee. Even weeks later, we still get some favorable e-mails.

I feel it's important to stress: I'm not suggesting every bookstore get rid of their records. By the same token, I am glad we did what we did if for no other reason than to publicize the nature of the Patriot Act.

The real solution is for the Patriot Act to be changed so that this is not even an issue. Many bookstores rely on their records for marketing and customer service, and I fully understand their reluctance to do what we did.

We have not been able to stop a war. However, gauging from all the responses we got, and the work that Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), in conjunction with ABFFE and the American Library Association, are doing, I think the Patriot Act will be at least modified. Enough citizens see how seriously this erodes some very fundamental rights, and, if more of our legislature starts asserting itself, hopefully things will change.

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For another perspective on this important issue, click here.

For more information about efforts to repeal Section 215 of the Patriot Act, go to the ABFFE Web site, www.abffe.com; Rep. Bernie Sander's Web site, http://bernie.house.gov; the ALA Web site, http://www.ala.org/alaorg/oif/usapatriotlibrary.html or click here. Specific questions can be addressed to ABFFE President Chris Finan at chris@abffe.com.


Bear Pond Books is a general literary bookstore situated directly in the center of the Vermont state capitol, Montpelier, on the corner of State and Main, and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer. Michael Katzenberg founded the store and runs it with his wife "and an extremely dedicated staff." The store holds book events three to four times a month, and is very much involved in the wider community of North Central Vermont.