Chain Reaction

When Waldenbooks workers were ordered to yank The Satanic Verses off the shelves last week, they also were told to keep their mouths shut about it. Some employees, apparently not cowed by the specter of mobs of militant Moslems, spoiled the corporate strategy.

After bounty hunters were sicced on the trail of $6 million man Salman Rushdie, Waldenbooks, the nation's largest book chain, quickly became the nation's largest paranoid book chain. It reacted to the brouhaha over an author's right to free speech by trying to muzzle its 8,500 employees.

Last Wednesday, corporate HQ in Stamford, Connecticut, fired off an urgent memo to all stores. The confidential note wound up in the hands of reporters because some employees (including at least one in the Valley) were angry about being forced to pull Rushdie's novel. This was the memo:

"Until further notice, remove all copies of The Satanic Verses from your shelves and hold in your back room. . . . We feel this measure is necessary due to extensive negative press. Thank you for your cooperation.

"In regard to the book The Satanic Verses:
"1) If anyone asks about the book, ask them if they're with the media. Do not answer media inquiries and do not give your name. Just say no comment. This is our corporate statement. The media should not be encouraged to call the home office. Our comment will be the same.

"2) Notify your mall management about the media's attempt to cover this. This is for security reasons.

"3) This message is confidential to the company and should not be shown to anyone outside the company. Thank you for your cooperation."

Waldenbooks outlets and corporate offices, however, were bombarded by calls from reporters. So the bookseller quickly issued this memo--designed to be read to the media:

"Waldenbooks, after receiving several threats to its store employees, has removed public displays of Satanic Verses. Its separation is solely to protect its 8,500 employees and its many customers across America. Waldenbooks has fought long and hard against censorship, but when it comes to the safety of Waldenbooks' employees and customers, we must act responsibly and in their interest. We are still selling the book upon request and where available."

The Satanic Verses has offended Islamic fundamentalists, who say the book depicts the prophet Mohammed's wives as prostitutes and suggests that he, and not God, wrote the Koran. After a declaration by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that Moslems should hunt down and kill Rushdie, Iranian religious leaders offered millions to anyone who carried out the Ayatollah's order.

Other book chains, including Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton, stopped selling the novel Friday, one day after Waldenbooks yanked it.

One manager of a Waldenbooks store in the Valley insisted that the flap had not thrown his store into chaos. "It's just an average workday for us," he said last Friday. "It's not affecting our work performance at all." The only disruptions, the manager said, were "the phone calls from reporters and stuff."

The manager, who declined to give his name, said his store had received no threats and added that it had sold out its copies of The Satanic Verses. When asked if he was aware of any other local Waldenbooks receiving threats, he said, "That, I cannot answer.

 
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