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Welcome to READERS' BOOKS, Sonoma's literary gathering place where you'll find good books, good talk, lots of events, and opinions, jokes, and music in abundance.

Located in the town of SONOMA in the heart of California's lovely and historic WINE COUNTRY, we are a general bookstore with a particular focus on contemporary fiction, poetry, children's literature, food, wine and religion. We carry both new and used books and host several author events each week.

We are located one-half block off the Sonoma Plaza on the southeast side.

Readers' Books
130 E. Napa St.
Sonoma, CA 95476
Tel: 707-939-1779
Fax: 707-939-8013
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Online, Offline, Whatever

As if we don't have enough woes in the book world, it's now my sad duty to report to you that there's yet another new disease to contend with: All this surfing and skimming we've been doing on the internet is now affecting our ability to read honest-to-God books. The brain gets used to certain ways of ascertaining information, it seems. And in the olden days-oh, five years ago-we still read things line by line, sentence by sentence, you know, chapter upon chapter. Which resulted in, not only the accumulation of knowledge, but a disciplined person who could plow through real books, even classics like Middlemarch or Crime and Punishment or Proust. It wasn't always easy, but you could do it if you had to. (Full confession here: I read Crime and Punishment and the first volume of Proust, but I never came within ten feet ofMiddlemarch and have no intention of doing so in my limited time left on earth. Lilla read it, however, and loved it, so that counts, I guess.)   

 

What's happening is that people who spend their days and nights on the internet seem to have lost their ability to read the old fashioned way. They automatically--and instinctively, apparently--look for key words. They skip over whole paragraphs in their quest to get to the gist of it. This technique may be fine for learning how to use the latest app or to find the three foods you absolutely need to avoid if you want to get into that bikini by June, but it won't help you understand Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooksor even a novelist of today, like Donna Tartt. Let's face it: people who write long, complex sentences with all manner of nuance are just not going to inhabit your restless cyberworld. To understand them, and most of modern literature, you're going to have to give them time--more than a few paltry seconds at least.

 

This could all signal a gradual evolution going on in our brains, but short sentences and cute acronyms like "lol" or" imo" do not, as a rule, make for a gripping tale. Maybe they will someday, but if you are cursed with being a graduate student and thus forced to read folks like Henry James or Herman Melville, you're going to be in for a tough slog. Where are the links? You might ask. Where's the accompanying video? How much do I really need to know about this Ishmael fellow, anyway?

 

It used to be that our world was pretty straight forward. There were certain basics that everyone agreed needed to be understood: history, geography, literature, math, science, philosophy. You couldn't really be said to be educated without a grasp of these things and more importantly, a respect for them. Right now, however, we're in the middle of a love affair with technology, and as I look around I often wonder whether we're not mistaking the moon for the finger pointing at it, to quote an old adage. It is no longer alarming to see a person walking down the street babbling to himself. It's no longer unusual to see whole families seated at restaurants and everyone lost in his or her own little device. Why then should we be so upset that kids who've been holed up in their bedrooms for years playing electronic fantasy games should now find Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi unreadable? We shouldn't, probably. Still, I have to admit, I am.

 

Andy 

David v. Goliath

If you're like me and try as best you can to keep pace with the tsunami of news, you are already aware that our Supreme Court has just struck down a rule on campaign financing, which means that the floodgates are now basically open to anyone with big bucks to spare. The five justices who voted for it are likening it to free speech, all this cascading of cash down the hallways of Congress. But in my experience there is never any free lunch. Somebody who gives you something will come calling again someday to ask a favor. How can you ever say no?

 

Money has always been part of our politics, of course, and lobbyists (I mean, er, donors) have always managed to find convenient ways through the thicket of laws that kept them from having undue influence. Still, I have to say that this is a pretty sad day for those of us who still believe in the democratic process. Sure, I have a voice and I can use it, but does my small town, shopkeeper's opinion really count as much as say, the Koch Brothers, those billionaire oil guys who will certainly write even more checks this time around to stop progress on climate change legislation? Or can anyone really go toe to toe with Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who doled out some ninety million dollars in 2012 for the likes of Newt Gingrich? Can little people really prevail over big people?

 

No one knows the answer just yet. It may be true that the Beatles are right, and money can't buy you love. But it can buy you notoriety. It can buy you billboards and TV documentaries and radio spots. It can buy you campaign buttons and bumper stickers and paid staffers. In short, it can buy you just about all you need to be on the public's radar. That doesn't mean you'll get elected, but it does tilt the playing field, as they say.

 

The simple way to remedy this is to stay informed and to vote as if your life depended on it. In some countries voting is mandatory. In Bolivia and Greece, for example, you have to vote. If you don't, you might get fined or lose benefits. We Americans have not typically cottoned to this approach. Some of us-many of us, in fact-live in our own self-proclaimed bubble. We spend our days putting one foot in front of the other. We drink our morning coffee, go to work, come home, watch the ball game and go sleep. What happens in Washington, D.C. stays in Washington, D.C. Or at least it never enters our mind. And in the end many of us don't even bother to vote. Which is a shame, because those who would like to tamp down the vote count and thus buy elections-the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Karl Rove, and others--rely on the fact that we're only half-awake at the wheel.

 

As for me, I'm thinking of all the things I might do to get you to vote this November. I have about twelve bucks in my wallet at the moment, but what if I offered you a free book to read if you came in on election day with your "I voted" sticker? Would that do the trick? Better yet, what if each of us who cared about voting came up with some kind of bribe-cookies or a car wash or a five-minute massage-and offered it to our tribe of friends and family? Think about it, if everyone did this we'd be a force to be reckoned with. We could win. That's the good news. The bad news is, my wife informs me, that offering someone a doughnut to vote is illegal. Hard to believe, but true. So, to summarize: If you're running for Congress you can now be bought. If you're voting for a Congressman, you can't. The Supreme Court has spoken. I love this country.

Andy

My Turn

For a brief shining moment we sort of became famous last week when one of my customers took me to task in a letter to the New Yorker magazine. Actually, he was disagreeing with George Packer and his essay on Amazon.com. This customer (I'm not naming names but you can read the mail in the March 24, 2014 edition) claimed that he had been buying books from his local bookseller here in Sonoma because he felt it was the right thing to do for his community, but then he discovered that he could purchase those books from Amazon at discounts ranging from 20% to 80%. From this he concluded that the existence of independent booksellers did not benefit him in the least, and that local booksellers just "don't provide value that compensates for their full-price bookselling."

 

He doesn't mention Readers' Books specifically, but since we're the only bookstore left in Sonoma, and since his name is in our customer data base, I have to think he's talking about us. Anyway, this guy was extolling the virtues of Amazon--mainly that they're cheaper and that they offer book reviews from readers and professional critics.

 

A word or two first, about book reviews and book reviewers: Having done that myself for many years at the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner I can state with some certainty that you might want to treat them with a grain of salt. Why? Because most, if not all, book critics are frustrated writers themselves. If you write a piece raving about an author's new novel it's entirely plausible that a) you're good friends with him/her; b) you're angling to be taken on by that author's hotshot agent; c) you want to get on good terms with the author's New York publisher; or d) all of the above. If, on the other hand, you put the book through a literary shredder in your review, it is equally plausible that a) the author is a competitor at the newspaper or an ex-lover; b) he/she has panned one of your novels in the past; or c) the paper is not paying you nearly enough to write anything laudatory. Of course, you could be chronically naïve about the book business as I was back then, and write what you honestly think about the book. This speaking the truth thing is great, but if you speak the truth about a powerful publishing mogul's book and show the whole world that it's barely reheated garbage, well, let's just say they have your name down on a big black list when you finally get around to submitting your own magnum opus.

 

About Amazon and it being cheaper, I have to admit that I grow weary of constantly punching above my weight, but the fact is one should never conflate price with value. I don't have to run down all the many things Readers' Books does besides sell books--the author events, the classes, the workshops, the book groups, the tickets we sell, the dogs we feed, on and on. We do whatever we can to make this a humane and nourishing experience. We try, every day, to make something wonderful (sometimes indescribably wonderful) happen. That's what we do. Most of you, fortunately, realize this and we thank you. Still, a fool, as my dear old mother used to say, is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. What can you do.

Andy 

What's Future is Past (and Vice Versa)

It's probably a simple function of aging, but as time goes by I find myself less sure of what I know (or formerly knew) and more and more, for want of a better word, in a muddle. Take, for example, the holidays. Valentine's Day used to be about telling someone, preferably the girl who sat next to you in your third grade class, that you were "sweet" on her-which meant back then, that with the aid of some poorly cut-out paper doilies and penny candy, you liked her well enough. That was it. Now, of course, adults have appropriated it, and because adults have money to spend (more than kids at least) it has morphed into a sexual adventure where people buy one another "toys" and aphrodisiacs and suggestive clothing. Gone forever is the innocence, the simple boy likes girl, the plain joy of saying hey, let's be friends.   

 

Or shall we mention St. Patrick's Day? Last I heard, St. Patrick was the fellow who drove all the poisonous snakes out of Ireland. That was his big claim to fame, and remembering St. Patrick meant only wearing something green on March 17th. In some people's universe you did this to keep faith with the Irish, either because you were Irish or because you believed that when it comes right down to it, all of us have some Irish in us. This wasn't the case in my Russian-Hungarian-Jewish-gypsy family, but it did mean that my mother sometimes tried to make corned beef and cabbage on that date, and on the playground at school I generally wore a green shirt or green socks in order to avoid getting pinched by my more muscular colleagues. Again, that was pretty much the extent of St. Patrick's Day. And now somehow it's an excuse for the whole world to get rip roaring drunk. What's wrong with this picture? If I were Irish, I imagine I could find a hundred aspects of my culture more deserving of celebration than that, but no, it's St. Patrick's Day, let's go out and drink ourselves into a blur.

 

What else don't I understand? Oh, so many things. E-cigarettes. Bitcoins. Twitter. Not only do I not understand them, I wake up in the middle of the night wondering whether what I grew up knowing has any relevance at all in 2014. They don't teach much geography anymore at school. Does anyone besides me find that troubling? I mean, how can you send kids off to fight and die in a place you can't even find on the map?

 

When he was in his mid-eighties my father tried valiantly to understand computers. He bought a state-of-the-art machine and had his grandson set it up for him. He took a beginning course on computers, and for a while he seemed to have it down. He thought it was the future, but then after a few months of poking at it in his living room he couldn't see what possible use it was for him personally. So he gave it away. As for me, I've gone too far into the 21st century to back away from these things, I know that, but there's a part of me that also won't allow for a total embrace. Maybe if I just sit back and mull on it a while, you know, puff on an e-cigarette, jiggle the bitcoins in my pocket, it'll all come clear.

Andy 

A Friend in Need (and somebody you might know someday)

Our friend and former workmate, Gia Coturri, who is now in North Carolina getting her Masters degree in English, has recently started devoting time to an organization which raises money for children's cancer research. She needs sponsorship from her home town and has asked us to lend a hand. Cancer, as it affects children, is apparently not nearly as well funded as cancer research in general, and Gia feels so strongly about this that she has vowed to shave her head bald in solidarity with the kids she wants to help.   The email address for the organization is http://www.stbaldricks.org, but if you contact Gia directly at giacoturri@gmail.com she will be happy to tell you all the good that they (and you and she) can do together. If you're a bookstore regular you will probably remember Gia as that smart, skinny, blonde kid whose favorite color was orange and who loved every word George Orwell ever wrote. Well, now she's fighting the good fight in North Carolina and needs your help.

The Season Now Upon Us

Nowadays, when people ask me how we're doing my usual response is, well, it's March. Which is to say, it's not February (a terrible month in the book business) or January (which can be a real let down because, let's face it, January isn't December. In fact, no other month even vaguely resembles December, so let's not go there). February and March are notable in retail because they are slack times for most of us--though perhaps not if you're in the candy trade (think Valentine's Day) or liquor (St. Patrick's). Actually, from what little I know about the liquor biz my guess is they're going at a pretty steady hum all year round, kind of like the funeral industry.

 

I remember taking one of those predictive tests in high school to see what careers I might be suited for and somehow they concluded that funerals and I were a match made, er, in heaven. Which is ironic, because as an impressionable teenager I didn't much like blood or hospitals or witnessing man's inhumanity to man (I would think that a person in the funeral business would encounter some dreadful physical specimens from time to time). Still, today, if it weren't for the fact that I like to smile a lot and tell jokes, I think I could have been a terrific undertaker. There's something wonderful about the constancy and the inevitability of it, I see that now, not to mention all the great gravitas--the music, the flowers, the poetry. And of course the fact that there's no boom or bust involved. Death happens when it happens, and when it happens you have no choice but to bury the body. Kind of the same with drinking. When people are happy, they drink. When they're sad, they drink. How can you lose? This may account for the longevity of bars and the high mortality rate of bookstores.

 

So while it's probably too late for me to change careers, the predictable ups and downs of retail have led me to what could be a revolutionary idea: the problem with February and March is this--our customers have spent all their money (and then some) in December. Now they're looking balefully at those bills from Christmas with one eye. With the other baleful eye they're trying to figure out how to come up with a check for the IRS which is due in April and, if they own a house, the property tax payment (also April). They're hemmed in. The wolf, they think, is at the door. The same is true for retailers as well. We've made an extra bit of money at Christmas time, sure, but now we have to pay for all those books we purchased. And the extra money? Hey, it's long gone. My idea is this: How would it be if businesses just all agreed not to demand payment in February and March? Fogettaboutit, as they say in New Jersey. This would reflect the true situation for most of us (bars, funeral and candy parlors excepted). February and March, we'd declare to be barren months, nobody coming through the door, nothing growing, snow on the ground, just let it be.

 

I know this wouldn't make everyone happy of course (This is America. Nothing ever makes everyone happy anymore). Still, for us retailers stuck on the rollercoaster of trying to make a living, having these two months debt free would be terrific.

 

T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month. I beg to differ. April, in my humble opinion, is a so-so month. I could live through April. February and March? Not so much.

Andy 

My Grandma Looms Large in Foreign Policy

For some reason, my grandmother and her global adventures keep popping up on my radar lately. Last week I was writing about how fortunate it was for me that in 1907 she didn't change course midstream on her way to America to follow her Polish lover. This week, with Ukraine in the news, I am reminded that my baba hailed from a little berg about one thumb print west of Kiev on the map, a town near the Dnieper River called Novogradvalensk.   Life was pretty tough back then: Of her ten brothers and sisters, she was the only one chosen by the magnanimous Tsar to go to school; Jews were heavily taxed and systematically barred from many professions; even worse, they were the subject of periodic pogroms and other violence by Cossacks and other drunken low lifes.

 

She wasn't in the least bit sad to leave the Ukraine. "Russia," she often used to say, "was a great place to be from." That said, one can't help but feel for the plight of the current Ukrainian population who, if one is to believe the Western press, only yearn to live in peace and freedom. And though it's too soon to predict how all this will play out, I'm sure my grandmother-were she still alive-- would have recognized another old reliable Cossack in the face of Vladimir Putin. 

As a side note, you'd think that our Republican friends in Congress and on television would want to stay as far away from Putin as possible, but no, they seem strangely drawn to him.   That's one Russian who knows how to put facts on the ground, is the general consensus you hear on the right. That's leadership. Now why can't our President Obama act so decisively?

It used to be, as I recall, that when we were confronted with an international crisis, the country pulled together. At the water's edge there was unanimity. You didn't hear the minority party carping about our government's response when, one Sunday morning the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, or not long ago, when nineteen hijackers from the Middle East leveled the World Trade Center. Why is it so different this time?

Republicans demand action, but what, exactly are we supposed to do? Does Senator McCain really want us, for example, to declare war on Russia? I can't imagine. Does Rudy Giuliani believe, in his heart of hearts, that we should funnel weapons into Ukraine? Maybe put some boots on the ground? After more than a decade of conflict and a burnt out military, who now is going to step forward for this craziest of missions? And even if we don't wind up going to war, what good would it do just to rattle our sabers? As Eugene Robinson wrote recently in the newspaper, there are many countries out there that would be intimidated by the sight of an American fleet on the horizon. Russia, however, is not one of them.

What we really need now (and why I'm thankful Obama is President) is for cooler heads to prevail.   I don't know about you, but I don't want to go back to the hair-trigger brinksmanship of the Cold War. Nor do I want us to go rushing into situations where we have no earthly idea how it will end. This includes places like Iraq. Also Libya, Syria, and Iran. And now I'd humbly suggest we throw in Russia as well. It may be 2014 and not 1907 anymore, but my grandmother nailed it years ago: it's still a good place to be from.

Andy 

I Thank My Stars

 Every now and again I find myself mulling over the idea of luck-what it is, how I came by it, and what place it holds in the wide world. If, for instance, my beautiful grandmother had decided back in 1907 to run off to Warsaw and marry the tall, handsome Polish professor who'd swept her off her feet on the boat coming over from St. Petersburg, if she'd gone that-a-way instead of to New York, I would not be here. Or if, in the summer of 1945 my father hadn't convinced his master sergeant that he was perhaps not the best candidate to go invade Japan, I would not be here. Or if I had listened to my father's advice and become a lawyer or a pharmacist and not run off to study poetry with Robert Creeley, I would be perhaps here (or somewhere) but you wouldn't have had a bookstore like ours in Sonoma for lo these many years. Or if I had married the girl of my mother's dreams-she who was rich and Jewish and younger than me, I might well be alive, but not with the children I now have, nor with my current crop of grandchildren. No, it would all be unimaginably different had I done just one of a hundred things in another fashion, turned left instead of right, said yes instead of no, gone to the party instead of stayed home with the flu.

 

It turns out scientists are now studying this whole phenomenon of luck; a fellow at Princeton  determined, for example, that success is largely a matter of luck. Oh, you need a certain basic competence. You must be able to write a passing fair novel say, or play the guitar reasonably well for a recording. But once you do that, whether the public will go for it is more or less a crapshoot, and if a critical mass of the public thinks it's valuable, then guess what?-the rest of the world will, too.

 

Why, you might wonder, is the Mona Lisa thought of as such an exquisite masterpiece? Why all the outlandish acclaim for Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick? And why all the furor now over J.D. Salinger? Andy Warhol liked to talk about everyone getting their fifteen minutes of fame, but clearly some individuals last far longer than that. Do they deserve it? Hard to tell. Clearly, they are the lucky ones, the artists who become brand names, the subject of college term papers and cartoon characterizations. Whatever they did, whatever decisions they made, whoever they hung out with-it all seemed to result in fame and fortune.

 

The flipside of this question is equally true. Let's say you get out of high school and go to work in an auto plant in Detroit because you like cars or because your father did it, and then after many years on the job you find yourself old and unemployed. When you can't find work you can't pay the bills. When you can't pay the bills you might lose your home or your sanity; you might even lose your wife and family. We all know folks like this,folks whose lives, through no fault of their own, have spiraled out of control.

 

I have no quick answers here, other than to say we need to spend less time being envious and more time being grateful for whatever luck we do have. And maybe more time thinking about the fortunate parts of our life that can't be easily stolen away from us.  The irony is that when all's said and done, life is just a gamble. We plan, we think we know how it's all going to end, but we don't. And it's the intangibles really--our memories and passions, our sense of humor--that are the only things out there that last.

Andy 

In My House It Was Always Sweet When It Rained

On rainy days, my mother, who hailed from the South and loved sunshine, would often feel glum. "My spirits are in my shoes," she'd say. And whenever that happened, she had a perfect remedy, which was to go into the kitchen and make a batch of fudge. She didn't make it according to a recipe; in fact, no one quite knew how she made it until Lilla stood there and watched her do it, which means we now have an exact account of the whole process on paper. To hear my mom tell it, fudge was simple: cocoa, sugar, milk and butter. That's all. Stuff she just threw together in some haphazard fashion, stuff that somehow always turned crystalline and delightfully luscious, not to mention bad bad bad for your teeth and diet plans.

 

My brother and I have eaten far more than our fair share of fudge in our day, as have our assorted children, nieces, nephews, cousins, etc. which probably contributes mightily to our collectively sweet dispositions. Of course, even though her secret is out and we all know how to make it now, none of us do, except for special occasions. It's bad, after all, which means it's good, really good, in fact, but you know, that's bad.

 

On the other hand, I have to admit I grow weary sometimes of all my constant efforts at being good. There are so many things that are bad for you, and almost all of them are right there at eye level in the supermarket. And when you couple that with the fact that life is-as Thomas Hobbes put it a few centuries ago-"nasty, brutish and short" -what's the point exactly? I know, I know, I'll live a bit longer if I consume more kale and broccoli and fewer cheeseburgers. Any fool knows that, but how do you weigh all the pros and cons and still have a full experience of life? That's a tough one.

 

I remember visiting my old doctor, Don Martin, years ago for a check up. He looked me over and said, "Well, you're okay, except maybe you're a little overweight and your cholesterol is too high and your blood pressure is through the roof. We should start you on..." And I stopped him right there and said, "you know, I'm not sure I want to take these pills. My parents were like that. They had three pills for this and two pills for that and three pills to counteract those pills. I'm not sure I want to go that route. I don't want to be a chemistry experiment. I mean, I'm going to die anyway, right?" To which he smiled and said, "I can guarantee you you're going to die. The question is, how do you want to feel in the meantime?"

 

In the end I saw the logic of his argument and took the pills. I don't know that I feel any better now, but then I didn't really feel bad when I went to see him in the first place. If I'd forgone the pills and had a stroke and died, well then, I suppose he could have said, see, I told you so, but that didn't happen. Hard to prove a negative, as they say. And just the fact that I'm still alive and going strong all these years later is a good thing, not unlike my mother's fudge, which is also good, but, depending on how you look it, bad. I'm still trying to parse this stuff out.       

 

Andy 

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: That Would Be Me

Even in this topsy-turvy world we like to think that some things never change. Why we engage in this fantasy is another question, one perhaps better left to psychiatrists and neuro-scientists, but the fact is, we believe. What do we believe in? Well, we believe that, no matter what else happens, death and taxes are constants in our lives. You can't escape them-the IRS and the Grim Reaper, they're just relentless.

 

I'm willing to allow for the Grim Reaper, but having seen some of the latest gadgets doctors are inserting into our bodies -new hips, new knees, new livers and hearts, etc.-it's not much of a stretch to think that in another generation or two no one will really die anymore, not in the old stodgy way we do now; we might go into a hospital and come out reupholstered; we might not have actual bones or organs, but hey, we could blink and say hello. We could still play "Chopsticks" on the piano. In that sense anyway, we'd be alive, and who would know the difference?

 

As for taxes, our rich friends, the 1% of society, are already leading the way into that shiny new tomorrow. They've mastered the art of paying little or no taxes, their money is sheltered on lovely Caribbean islands in numbered bank accounts, and what's most amazing in my opinion--they make a profit no matter which way the arrows point on Wall Street. If the 1% can do it, there's hope for all us little guys, I say.

 

Once you dispense with death and taxes, the possibilities are endless. There are a whole host of other -what shall we call them?-questionable absolutes-that really have no place in our modern world. Take gravity. Personally, I've never cared for gravity. It's such a downer. The apple falling from the tree, really, who needs it? I've always wanted to float up into the clouds, stretch my arms out straight like Superman and voom!-- just go. Why can't I do that? I've been watching the skiers and snowboarders at Sochi and they seem right on the edge of defeating this thing once and for all.

 

The irony here is that while we're making all these miraculous break-throughs, if you look at the nightly news there are still plenty of instances where we're going nowhere. In fact, we're actually tumbling backward. In the People's Republic of Korea folks are eating dirt and grass just to keep something in their stomachs. In Uganda, Russia, and some parts of the USA it's dangerous or downright illegal to be gay. In Florida these days it seems like it's illegal to be black, and on Capitol Hill, the Republicans in Congress have apparently decided there are already too many laws on the books so they're not going to do much about immigration reform or climate change or (God forbid) gun control. Not this year, anyway, and probably not any year, for that matter. Let them eat cake, in other words, if they can afford it on their minimum wage salaries at McDonald's.

 

That's the kind of thing that could turn even a happy-go-lucky guy like me into a cynic, but I'm not going to let it happen. No sir, I'm biding my time. I'm waiting for that glorious moment in the not too distant future when I slip nonchalantly into a phone booth and come out as Superman. Oh wait. There are no phone booths anymore, are there. Damn. 

 

Andy 

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