Thursday, April 3, 2008

Being Negative

I recently got the news that the bookstore I work in, a really great independent one, thirty-some years old, is probably going to close in the next couple of months. Even though I knew that this was always a possibility, and that it was probably an inevitability, I'm still shocked. I thought that if any town could support an independent bookstore, Ithaca -- town of 50,000 students and their professors -- could. But as it turns out: no. Selling a carefully chosen selection of books in a non-warehouse-sized store is thing of the past. The expense is too great; the profit too small.

But it stinks. It REALLY stinks. Ithaca has shops that sell bongs and incense and Bob Marley tee-shirts; it has a shop that offers only high-end kitchen ware; it has about fourteen RiteAids. But not one teeny little independent bookstore? Not any more.

What's the point in even living in town if it's exactly like every other town? You might as well be a brain in a jar hooked up to the internet.

It makes me angry that the citizens of Ithaca have decided that buying books from the big boxes on the strip or from the internet Gargantua is preferable to buying them from a locally owned store. Or maybe they're not buying books at all. Maybe they're just reading blogs.

I do try to stay positive. I'm for books and literature, not against anything else. I love the internet. But I don't want to live all my life here; I want to be able to walk into a store and see the people I like and say Hello and what have you read lately? I love buying a book and carrying it to the little grocery next door and getting a cup of soup and walking across the street to the park and sitting there with my book and soup and feeling a kind of bliss. You can't feel bliss in the Barnes and Noble parking lot, even if you have air conditioning in your frigging car and you shell out for a Flappacheeno.

I've met so many great people at the store. Customers know us, know our schedules, know who to ask if they want a cookbook (not me) or a kids' picture book (not me either).

Oh, well, this is not an original rant. You can argue till the end of time over Convenience and Wide Selection and Discounts versus Knowledgeable Clerks and Interesting Selection and Local Dollars. But I guess this latest development has undermined my basic optimism. Ithaca without Bookery II is a lesser town. There's no good side to it.

(Undermined, but not destroyed: I secretly believe that the B&Ns and Borderses will self-destruct a few years down the line and commercial rents will plummet and more great books will be published in paperback by small presses, and we'll be living through another Renaissance...)

Meanwhile, I have other business to attend to. Just got a batch of new chicks:

And there are seedlings to transplant:

Oh, yeah, and books to read.....


myles said...

Bummer. But, like you, I think the bookstores will have their moment again. People need real things: friends, clubs, restaurants, bookstores. You can't get everything online.

I'm usually happy to spend a bit more and shop at an independent bookstore, because of their knowledge, the charm of the place, and the quirky variety (no endless rows of Brown). Plus it gives me a great burst of Stendhal's Syndrome whenever I walk in. You can't get that on Amazon.

Diana Holquist said...

Isn't Borders looking for buyer? My understanding is that they are already going down. This is the generic Yahoo article. It's been all the talk on my writers' loops.

Very, very sad about the store, though, R. And very sad for Ithaca. For America...

The trend I see in my sales is e-books. Oh, and people stealing my books as e-books. About 200 a month on an average month.

Ah, the book business is into some interesting times. Me, I'm keeping my day job.

rmellis said...

Myles: I had look up Stendahl Syndrome. I'm glad there's a word for that...

Diana: That cover is great!!

I think the big boxes over-extended themselves. It'll be interesting to see what happens next. It's just too bad they had to wipe out so many small businesses in the process.

E-book theft seems to be a sign that the publishing industry's going the same way as the music industry...

timothy (nyc) said...

The impression I got of Ithaca was that the academics and the townies were at odds with each other. Townies resent the college folk, and vice versa in their own ways. Don't know which bookstore you are talking about but I think nowadays people just buy what they need off of Amazon. As for the townies well not many people read much anyway so why have a bookstore.

bookfraud said...

since i'm the king of "being negative," i have lots to say. but i'll keep it brief.

ithaca is not the only college town whose independent bookstores are getting driven out of business by the book barns. it's no accident that b&n offers crappucinos, music, etc.; they can't offer customer familiarity or real book knowledge with their minimum wage staff, so they go for a fake version.

now i'm getting all angry.

on the positive side, the chick is adorable.

AC said...

That sucks.

I didn't realize until just this minute how much I was counting on Ithaca to be that kind of place.

I've only been to Ithaca a few times, but it's kind of my backup plan/fantasy as a place to live. If the rest of Upstate New York is too depressing, well, there's still Ithaca...I guess not so much anymore.

rmellis said...

There is a town-gown tension that really bothered me when I first moved here, quite different from Missoula where the university is much less resented. It's totally understandable, as Cornell is an extremely wealthy bully -- but also a generous sugar daddy if you get lucky.

There are still great things about living here -- I have no plans to move -- but I guess it can't help falling to many powerful national trends.

Plus, it's incredibly annoying to park -- even drive -- downtown these days. That alone might have killed the store.

5 Red Pandas said...

That's really sad. I'm sorry for Ithaca's loss!

You could be right about the big chains, but I have a hard time believing that their demise will help independent stores. The Astor Place Barnes & Noble closed earlier this year and it was one of B&N's biggest NYC stores, but I'm not sure what that signals because if they complain about rent, how do smaller stores keep in business. It is odd to see that Tower Records went down but Other Music, the tiny store across the street, is still going strong. I guess there are enough people in this city who want to see some of those place survive- but I think they only survive if they create a niche or come up with some sort of innovation like selling on the web as well. Each one of these successful independent stores has a distinct personality and that must help as well.

So I have more indie stores to choose from but I'm definitely paying for that privilege. I was shocked and dismayed to find that the price of my favorite sandwich at the Mexican bakery in my neighborhood went up by $1.05. It's just a sandwich, but it's another indicator that I'll have to get by with less if I want to stay here.

Anonymous said...

Ha, I noticed that too, Pandas...i was at Other Music buying my usual obscure bleepy shit and then walked across the street to buy a magazine and use the restroom. AND IT WAS GONE

Town/gown notwithstanding, Ithaca is a good place. I think Cornell is more sugar daddy than The Man, and I felt that way long before I ever got a job there. I freeloaded at its libraries, public gardens, and performance venues for eight years before they made an honest man of me, and I can't help but feel that town/gown problems are as much the town's fault as the gown's. People like to bitch about colleges in their towns, but they're a great resource, if you use them that way.

It would be awfully nice for the college to step in, though, and help the bookstore stay afloat. I do love the place.

ann @ obie said...

oberlin tried to step in and save their book/music store. worked for a while. but no more. basically people don't read. they're not selling enough to stay afloat. even borders is in trouble. barnes and noble, amazon, they're ok because they can push all the harry potter and oprah fluff, the latest atkins diet books. that's all people buy. i heard recently how fiction was considered 'dead' or something officially, because the last of the short story writers admitted there was no career in it or something. i think that's what's at play here. and for music, well, most new bands just put it online. the thought of buying a cd seems so weird to me now. i hate that nobody reads novels anymore, and this is yet another reason to feel negative about it all. another wonderful bookstore has gone kaput.

rmellis said...

Oberlin had the BEST bookstore, for its size. It was the college store but also in town: the Co-Op. When I was a student there, I'd save up money and spend hours just trying to a choose a book -- and reading as much as I could without buying everything -- one of my favorite memories.

And after I graduated B&N bought it, and when I came back for a visit... OMG, it was awful. Piddly selection of books, stains on the floor, bad lighting. I could have cried.

But that was our textbook store, too. I wonder if they don't even have a textbook store anymore. That doesn't seem possible.

Oberlin had a couple great used book stores (and fantastic vintage clothing stores, too...)

Laura @ Hungry and Frozen said...

That completely sucks. I'm afraid I was reminded of that awful movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Hopefully things work out, I'd personally much prefer to browse in cosy, booklovers' bookshops than the sterile Borders and Whitcoulls and so on. You'd think in a university town there'd be enough righteous hipster students to keep you afloat.

That chick was very, very cute btw :)

ann @ obie said...

yeah i can't believe how much has changed so quick. no vintage shops or small bookstores now. :(

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

Even Cambridge, MA has lost all but one private bookstore. The world class academic mecca. Very depressing. But yes, I agree with Bookfraud, the chick is adorable.

Dan Wickett said...

It's frequently the loss of textbooks and their sales that are killing the college town indie stores from what I've heard and read. Those two monster weeklong periods of sales in September and January are dwindling year after year as professors and students use technology more and more and reduce the sales of those really expensive texts.

And that sucks as those two weeklong periods helped make up for whatever losses were incurred the other 50 weeks of the year.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

Actually, that's not true in my college town. Textbooks were always sold exclusively through the college bookstore that now has a co-ownership deal with Barnes and Noble. The private bookstores that have closed never sold textbooks, were constantly packed with customers day and night, and have still gone down the tubes. Some people say it's simply the high and escalating rents in Cambridge that have done those stores in.

Anonymous said...

This topic interests me a lot. I cashier at the Union Square Barnes and Noble, and it's true about the reading material there--the main purchases are self-help, travel books, and children's books. All the "literary" books aren't even kept in an accesible place--fiction, poetry, essays, philosophy, relgion, etc. are all on the fourth floor, the top floor. In some ways, this is just the Barnes and Noble demographic and I know that. If I were working at the Strand I'm sure I'd find lots of other purchases. But it is definitely disconcerting/depressing to check out nothing but pseudo-spiritual self-help all day. And yes, Oprah seems to be the driving force behind most people's purchases.