It's always the simplest problems that lead to the most eye-opening trips down the corporate rabbit hole.
Marla Knutsen of Altadena contacted me to say that she was having a hard time closing her account with Quality Paperback Book Club. She said she's been telling the organization by letter and email since January that she wanted to cancel her membership — and they keep sending her books.
"I am worried that they'll eventually send this to collection," Knutsen said.
She's right to worry. No debt collector has yet contacted Knutsen. But companies like this, whose business model centers on sending you things every few weeks and then charging you for them, are notorious for going after people who stop paying their bills.
I wasn't surprised by the problems she was having — I had the same ones as a kid after I foolishly joined the Columbia House record club and then couldn't stop the records from coming.
What did surprise me, though, was the enormous difficulty I encountered just trying to find someone at Quality Paperback Book Club, or QPB as it calls itself, who could deal with Knutsen's issues.
That, in turn, led to questions about who actually owns the business — and why the parent company is apparently working so hard to remain out of sight.
Let me say up front that I have nothing against book clubs. Anything that encourages reading in the age of 140-character tweets and what-I-had-for-breakfast Facebook posts is OK by me.
But I have little patience for businesses that make it as difficult as possible for a customer to say thanks but no thanks. Back in the days of dial-up Internet access, AOL was one of the prime offenders for this sort of behavior. Some gyms also make breaking up especially hard to do.
It's like once they get used to seeing your membership money each month, they just refuse to give it up.
According to the website for Quality Paperback Book Club, you can select four books for $1 each when you join. Then you have to buy at least four more books "at regular club prices" over the next year before you're eligible to cancel your account.
During that time, members also will automatically receive the club's "favorite picks" every three weeks unless they decline them within 10 days of receiving the catalog.
Knutsen, 70, said that after almost two decades of membership, "I kept saying I wanted out." But the favorite picks continue to arrive — about $80 worth so far, by her reckoning.
I didn't think this would be tough to fix. A call from a reporter is usually sufficient to get a business to straighten up and fly right.
But just try to get in touch with Quality Paperback Book Club. It's practically impossible.
I started with a message sent via their website. That garnered no response.
I called the number for customer service in the club's membership agreement. Always a busy signal.
So I began poking into the organization's corporate lineage in hopes of finding a parent company that could be held accountable. This is where things became downright weird.
Quality Paperback Book Club is affiliated with the venerable Book of the Month Club, which has been serving up literature to the masses since 1926.
The clubs were purchased in 2000 by a company called Bookspan, which was a joint venture of publishing giants Bertelsmann and Time Warner. Bertelsmann took complete control of Bookspan in 2007.