Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Fate of Independent Book Stores

I spent the afternoon at a staff meeting for the book store I work in. It was at my boss's house and there was a nice spread: wine, shrimp, cookies. Some of us joked, Ha, ha, looks like a wake, is the store dead at last? But, to our surprise, it turns out the store is doing just fine. It's actually not in danger of closing, at all.

Wow! Even though a huge percentage of Americans read nothing but cereal boxes, TVGuide, and the Bible, even though hardcover books are overpriced, even though, thanks to the internet, you don't need to buy dictionaries or baby name books or travel guides anymore, even though Amazon has free shipping and the books show up in your mailbox, even though Barnes and Noble and Borders are just a couple miles away and have discounts, way more books, and acres of free parking... our little (but truly excellent) store is hanging in there. I almost can't believe it.

I think the reason it's surviving is because the people in our town really want it to. They want to live in a town with a real bookstore -- not just a book warehouse out on the highway. Independent bookstores are an organ of the town they're in: they're formed by the tastes of the town. Not everyone cares, of course. I've had friends argue strenuously in favor of the book warehouses, because of the obvious (lower prices and larger selection) but also because of their anonymity and uniformity. They want to get lost among the Dummies Guides and endless shelves of remainders, and they find the giant head of Jane Austen staring down at them to be vaguely reassuring. They dislike the way the owner of an independent store inevitably stamps the inventory with his or her personal taste. These friends also tend to believe that it's not their job to support a store, that the store should make them want to patronize it, and they should not have to sacrifice any kind of convenience just because a store happens to be independent rather than corporate-owned. They get a little bit pissed off if you imply otherwise.

I don't know. I hate chain stores. I hate entering a store in New York and feeling as if I could go out the door and find myself in Ohio. I hate the feeling of enormous psychic boredom I get when I look at those murals, or smell that Starbucky smell. I feel overwhelmed by the huge, spilling piles of books. Of course, I have a choice: I actually live in a town with a decent bookstore. When I lived in the rural south, I might have cried tears of bliss if a Borders showed up within an hour's drive of me.

As my boss, the store's owner, said, small bookstores have outlived their usefulness. But usefulness is not the only virtue.

1 comment:

aos said...

I used to manage a successful independent bookstore (and then the chains came to town, and soon after, amazon). Adding to the assault was the selling and discounting of books at traditionally nonbookstore outlets like grocery megastores and Costco. The single most damaging move was that these outlets disounted the bestsellers. The bestsellers at full price supported the rest of the store just like a publisher's bestsellers support the smaller runs. Add to this, the competitive intelligence of these outlets where they feed off of the new hot "underground" hits that we championed and siphoned off those sales as well. It all got rather depressing. Yes, we survived but like so many others, when it had been possible to pay good salaries and provide health plans, that had to go just to keep the business viable.