Indies under fire

by Henry on February 16, 2007

Charlie Cray forwarded me a link to this forthcoming “documentary”:http://www.indiesunderfire.com/index.html on the demise of independent bookstores and the rise of chains. This is something that I have more ambiguous feelings about than many lefty academics. On the one hand, there are independent bookstores in DC and elsewhere that I love, cherish, and try to shop in whenever I get a chance. But on the other, I grew up in a small town without a bookshop of any description whatsoever, a place which was a little like Penelope Fitzgerald’s “Hardborough”:http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/09/07/reviews/970907.07cunning.html?_r=1&oref=slogin before Ms Green arrives. A couple of times a year I would go to Fred Hanna’s when we visited relatives in Dublin, but the rest of the time I relied on what I could get from the local library or the small rack of paperbacks at the local newsagent. I’d have killed for a chain bookstore somewhere close by, and I find it hard to imagine that my teenage equivalent somewhere out there in the heartland today wouldn’t feel the same way.

There is something being lost as independent bookstores close; a lot of valuable, local knowledge possessed by smart, book-obsessed employees who could give good leads on other books that you ought to read if you liked or were interested in _x_. But the increase in choice provided by the spread of chains (and the Internet) to places that were badly served in the past isn’t to be discounted either. What is a more unalloyed tragedy in my eyes (and not only mine; I think I’m stealing this claim from Teresa Nielsen Hayden) is the demise of the kind of variegated paperbook rack in the newsagent/drugstore that got me reading in the first place. These mixed together bestsellers, unabashed junk, and all sorts of other obscure, semi-obscure and eccentric books. They got me hooked on reading. My impression is that these racks aren’t out there any more, in either Ireland or the US – the places that had them have either gotten rid of them altogether, or only use them to sell the same five or six bestsellers that everyone else is selling.

{ 43 comments }

1

SamChevre 02.16.07 at 5:11 pm

Antother huge benefit of the chains, from my perspective (and I say this as someone who really likes smaller enterprises in general), is that they will let you read their books without buying them. I can go to my local Borders or Barnes and Noble, buy a $1.50 cup of coffee, and sit in the cafe all evening reading whatever is in the store that I want to read. As someone who can’t afford to buy, and has no place to store, many books that I want to read, that is quite a valuable benefit.

2

Slocum 02.16.07 at 5:31 pm

There is something being lost as independent bookstores close; a lot of valuable, local knowledge possessed by smart, book-obsessed employees who could give good leads on other books that you ought to read if you liked or were interested in x.

But book-obsessed people are much easier to interact with now than in the hey day of the independent bookstore (whenever that might have been exactly). The ratio of interesting books I find out about through Internet exchanges to interesting books recommended to me by book store staff is 100:1. Nah, make that 100:0 — I lived in Ann Arbor when Borders was still a local indy bookstore, and it was a great resource to have, but I just shopped there in the usual way — I never developed a relationship with any of the staff that would enable them to make recommendations for me personally. And, of course, twenty years ago only a tiny fraction of people living in the U.S. had anything remotely like a local Borders.

And that last fact I think is not irrelevant to the feelings of regret many have. I think they’re confusing regret for the loss of great independent books stores with regret for the exclusivity of having access to great independent bookstores when the masses had to make do with a crappy little ‘B Dalton’ at the mall. It was cool, twenty years ago, to live a place made special, in part, by having a great local book store — people used to come and visit and a trip to Borders and SchoolKids (the great local indy music store) was essential. Now that exclusivity is gone.

What is a more unalloyed tragedy in my eyes (and not only mine; I think I’m stealing this claim from Teresa Nielsen Hayden) is the demise of the kind of variegated paperbook rack in the newsagent/drugstore that got me reading in the first place.

I don’t understand this as a tragedy either–you can find almost anything as a used book for a few bucks now on the net (and resell it when you’re done if you’re short on cash). And everything of note written before 1923 can be downloaded for free. Who really needs racks of cheap paperbacks in the drug store?

3

Moleman 02.16.07 at 5:39 pm

This confused me when I read it over Making Light, but since the topic was long dead when I got there, I finally get to ask it: where are you finding these drugstores and supermarkets that don’t have any book racks? I’m aware that my experience may not be representative (mid-atlantic suburbs, maybe half an hour to the nearest big city), but there’s invariably a small book section in those places, with exactly the selection you’re describing. I don’t think Philadelphia is a particularly literate city, and these are mostly chain stores (CVS, Eckerd, Acme, etc.) so I doubt it’s a regional thing.

If anything, the trend is towards more of these, because there’s a chain drugstore every few blocks now.

4

Steve LaBonne 02.16.07 at 5:59 pm

Moleman, I don’t think it’s absence of book racks being deplored- as you note, they aren’t absent- but the vast change in their usual contents, from the unpredictable smorgasbord of yore to the predictable cheesy Christian self-help books of today.

And with all the well-publicized handwringing from owners of struggling independents (with whom I genuinely do sympathize), it’s good to see someone like Henry making the point that the ascendance of Borders and B&N is far from being pure loss, since it has brought respectable bookstores to many areas that never had a hint of any such thing before. Those of us condemned to inhabit suburbia (no anti-commuter snarks please, I live near my workplace) quite appreciate that. Though along with samchevre I have to confess that those places make more money from me in coffee purchases than book purchases, since books that I actually want to buy, I normally buy online. (So I suppose that when land-based bookstores die out completely, that’s when I’ll have to feel guilty…)

5

Jim Harrison 02.16.07 at 6:19 pm

Between Borders and Amazon, the kind of books I like to buy are vastly more accessible to me than they used to be, but the enormous real and virtual bookstores are appearing in a world where fewer and fewer people read (or so I’m informed). I don’t understand how these trends relate to one another and to the apparent decay of the public library system in many parts of the U.S.

I know that the history and sociology of literacy is a major academic field. I encounter less good material on the contemporary situation. Can anybody recommend some studies of the current economics and natural history of reading?

6

sara 02.16.07 at 6:19 pm

Many of these CVS drugstore book racks push either health books or Christian books (or combination of same). I assume this reflects the company’s or the pharmacists’predilections. Mass-market fiction paperbacks also appear.

7

John Emerson 02.16.07 at 6:27 pm

You can always count on Slocum to be annoying. The nice thing about those old book racks is that kids who didn’t go in looking for a book might buy one anyway, and there were always a few good books in the mix. But Slocum isn’t a kid, so what does he care?

For me the internet has been invaluable for helping me to find out-of-print books. In my first year buying books on the internet I spent about $2000 buying almost a hundred books I’d been looking for for years, and I rarely had to pay a premium price.

8

John Emerson 02.16.07 at 6:30 pm

ABE books (internet) sells mostly-secondhand books from the funky old-fashioned bookstores. It’s not as good as the old days, but it keeps them going.

9

PL 02.16.07 at 6:33 pm

As someone who worked in an independent bookstore for years, I am sorry to see them go — I don’t think there is much advantage for the casual browser in a true independent, but the regular benefits enormously, especially if the store has an understood area or areas of expertise (my store sold a lot of comics and SF/Fantasy, but we were also the go-to place for the Beats and Absurdist/Surrealist literature in translation — go figure). Regulars who were willing to talk with the staff about their interests got steered toward material I am reasonably confident that they never would have found otherwise — and a web search does not necessarily help you if you have no idea the thing exists. (Although “enthusiast sites” can help with this, if you can find one that matches your taste.)

The only independents that seem at all healthy are those with a strong niche presence, where that staff expertise is best understood and appreciated. I suspect this is also true in music stores.

10

Matt 02.16.07 at 6:45 pm

I’ve found the ‘recommendations’, combined w/ the ‘look inside’ feature at Amazon to be much more useful than suggestions by a book store staff member ever was for me. If you build up a big list of recommendations you can browse through them and find cheap used books very often as well. I mean, I’ve _never_ pay even $10 for David Schmitz’s edited edition on Nozick but you’ve been able to order a remaindered copy for less than $.50 for more than a year now. At that price (even including shipping) how can you go wrong? Of course it recomends a lot of junk, too, but since you’re looking at home it’s not like you’ve spent time going to the store.

11

Slocum 02.16.07 at 6:54 pm

I don’t understand how these trends relate to one another and to the apparent decay of the public library system in many parts of the U.S.

The public library system here isn’t decaying (just the opposite, actually), but to me the public library, like physical book stores, is seeming less and less relevant.

The library catalog here is online, so I do search it first, but very often the book is either not in the collection or is checked out. But with the ‘ebay virtual public library’, the book I want is always in the collection, is never checked out, is delivered directly to my house, and I can keep it as long as I want–all for typically less than $10 (and that’s if you keep the book forever — much less if you resell it). Even if you value your time at minimum wage, it’s a great deal when you figure the time and cost of going to the library to pick up a book and then going back to return it (not counting any late fees…)

12

RWB 02.16.07 at 7:53 pm

The problem with the demise of independents and the rise of the duopoloy of Borders and B&N (or triopoly if you count Amazon) is that these companies place different demands on publishers than indies did. There has been a value migration to the big stores. Borders and B&N and Amazon can ask for and get deals from publishers that publishers must accept–discounts, marketing fees, etc. For big publishers like Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc., these demands are difficult but not impossible to live with. But small publishers find themselves in increasingly precarious positions. They are extremely low-margin operations in the first place, some great small publishers surviving on a combination of sales, charity, and grants. If Borders or B&N takles an extra half point, some of these publishers will throw in the towel.

Now Borders, B&N, and Amazon are publicly traded companies. They are required to operate in ways that return the most value for their shareholders. The people who work there (most of whom are booklovers themselves) don’t intend to make publishing difficult for small publishers, but they do.

I like indie bookstores for what they are. But their disappearance disturbs me more for economic reasons. The continued existence of small publishers, who provide so much of the richness and diversity of books, is at risk.

13

Gabe 02.16.07 at 8:11 pm

John is right – ABEbooks combines the best of both – you support the small sellers and have access to a far wider range than Amazon, for a lot cheaper. They seem to have reached a critical mass in the number of sellers so that almost anything you can think of is available.

As for small publishers, the internet also lets them sell without incurring distribution costs if you order from them direct.

14

Slocum 02.16.07 at 8:25 pm

But small publishers find themselves in increasingly precarious positions. They are extremely low-margin operations in the first place, some great small publishers surviving on a combination of sales, charity, and grants. If Borders or B&N takles an extra half point, some of these publishers will throw in the towel.

Hmmm — it strikes me that it just must be the case that it’s easier for small publishers to get their titles stocked by superstores with 25,000 square feet and 100,000 titles than indies with 3,000 square feet a correspondingly small selection. Which isn’t to say life as a small publisher is easy. But then life hasn’t been easy for Borders lately either — they’ve been losing money and same-store sales are dropping:

http://biz.yahoo.com/prnews/061121/detu012.html?.v=70

15

Timothy Burke 02.16.07 at 8:29 pm

I also do not reflexively salute when someone runs the “omigod independent bookstores are dying!!!!” flag up the flagpole. There are some indy bookstores I really treasure, but not simply because they are independent. It’s what they have, and how they have it. There are far more independent bookstores that I have found deeply annoying or frustrating over the years: bookstores run by a single sour misanthropist or weirdo, bookstores run by some supercilious snob, bookstores with hostile or indifferent staff, and so on. With one major exception, I can’t recall getting to know an owner or staff member well enough that they could give me any meaningful advice about what to buy, or even be interesting people to shoot the shit with in terms of various books. The stock at a lot of indy bookstores is mediocre to poor, and that’s not necessarily a matter of size–the extent to which such bookstores typically have unique or distinctive stocking is often exaggerated, in my experience. I can also think of a number of indy bookstores that I’ve been to that were staggeringly dingy and unpleasant places to shop–there was an SF bookstore in Baltimore years ago that had catshit everywhere and piles of books that threatened to collapse on you if you walked down an aisle.

I’m not saying Borders or B&N is any great shakes. And there are indy bookstores that are indeed quite awesome (Seminary Co-op, for example). But I don’t grok the blanket idolatry that many people I know have for independent booksellers.

16

John Emerson 02.16.07 at 8:34 pm

Slocum probably lives in some Republican slum where the library is stacked on the floor. At my rural Minnesota public library I have free ILL access to most of the college libraries in the state, including the University of Minnesota library. This means that I can and do get anything — most recently, “The Goths in the Crimea” and “Lithuania Ascending: A European Pagan Empire.”

Slocum is unaware that some things are good for other people than him. Slocum’s model for interpreting public policy consists of an indefinitely large number of identical rational actors, all of whom happen to be exactly like Slocum. Libertarians are always like that.

17

svk 02.16.07 at 8:48 pm

Way more depressing than the loss of independent bookstores (which, unlike the original Borders in Ann Arbor, often lacked really decent discount tables) is the loss of *readers*. Even if more folks are reading alternative materials (blogs, magazines, US Weekly, etc.), how do we account for the loss of readers of plain old books?

Further, American libraries are in serious decline. It’s not just dwindling collections; it’s dingy rooms and dingier users (the homeless sadly seeking out warm shelter); huge demand for free internet accesss (not books, or reference materials, or librarians’ knowledge); shelves of junk; slashed urban budgets…

In any case, I don’t think our “teenage equivalent” *anywhere* is worrying about chain vs. indie bookstores, or even public libraries, at all. They’re out there clamoring for a better internet hookup – that and a myspace page and they’re good to go.

18

Chuchundra 02.16.07 at 9:05 pm

I never even bother to go to my library and browse the stacks anymore. My local library is a very small one and has a rather poor selection.

However, thanks to the internet, I have access to the entire, county-wide library system. If I want a book, all I have to do is go to the online catalog and request it. They happily deliver it to my local library. The nice librarian calls me and tells me my book (or DVD or whatever) is in and I trundle down there and pick it up.

19

grackel 02.16.07 at 9:07 pm

Count me among those who mourn the passing of the independents and the used bookstores, as well as the racks in the drugstores. Growing up in small town Oklahoma, it was on such an eclectic rack that I discovered John Crowe Ransom and Wallace Stevens, as well as a book on existentialism by Walter Kaufmann, at the age of 14-15, all of which had influence that I still appreciate. A marvelous book with plates of iridescent butterflies happened on while browsing through the shelves of a store in San Luis Obispo is one of many happy memories in the serendipity of physically browsing someone’s treasures. This is stuff one can’t do online.

20

RWB 02.16.07 at 9:19 pm

Hmmm—it strikes me that it just must be the case that it’s easier for small publishers to get their titles stocked by superstores with 25,000 square feet and 100,000 titles than indies with 3,000 square feet a correspondingly small selection.

This presupposes that bookstores are all generalist stores. Borders and B&N are, of course, generalist, and many indie stores are. But a lot aren’t. Indie stores often have specialties–cookbook stores, mystery book stores, art book stores, comic book stores, etc. Even generalist indie stores often have areas in which they are particularly expert and stock more deeply than a much larger B&N or Borders would. Furthermore, you have to understand the economics of running a big box store. If you have shelf space for two books, the first book you put out is The Da Vinci Code because it will turn every week. No other book will do as well, so you have to settle for a lesser turn for the second space. Well, you could shelve Life: A User’s Manual (published by a very fine small press) that has a turn of 3 months, or another copy of The Da Vinci Code, which causes both slots to have turns of two weeks. You choose the latter because your average turn is so much higher, and turn is what pays salaries and produces dividends. In other words, just because a big box store has more shelfspace to fill, they won’t go out of their way to fill it with the widest possible variety of books–they will try to come up with a variety that produces the most turn. At the same time, they will still be squeezing their publishers for every point of discount, every dollar of coop marketing, every penny they can get.

That said, it would be interesting to know how commercial book space–how many feet of bookshelves in bookstores–has changed over the years. Has it gone up with the expansion of Borders and B&N (and simultaneous decline of the indies)? Or down?

By the way–I’m not blaming Borders or B&N. The book business has always been very low margin, and these companies–which started out as independent booksellers themselves, once apon a time–are trying to survive by selling books. As Mr. Slocum observed, even for them it is difficult. I shop at them, but none of them are my favorite–that honor goes to the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, TX. (A small shout out to a great bookstore.)

21

Colin Danby 02.16.07 at 9:54 pm

I also miss the unpredictable smorgasboards Steve and Henry remember, in places that weren’t really bookstores. I still have a bunch of New Directions paperbacks that I bought, one at a time as I could afford them, from wire racks in the basement of a stationery store. The newsagent stocked Sartre and Milton along with Georgette Heyer and Louis L’Amour. This would have been the 1970s. The internet has vastly improved book-buying if you know what you want, but as a kid wandering around looking for entertainment, it was nice to encounter this stuff.

PS the March 1 NYRB has a piece by Eliot Weinberger on James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions. It was interesting to learn where those books came from.

22

tom s. 02.16.07 at 9:59 pm

20 “Hmmm—it strikes me that it just must be the case that it’s easier for small publishers to get their titles stocked by superstores with 25,000 square feet and 100,000 titles than indies with 3,000 square feet a correspondingly small selection.”

As an author published by a small press, I know that the problem with big chains (well, here in Canada where Chapters/Indigo dominates the book selling scene) is the problem of returns. Yes, you can get your book on the shelf, but if they ship back 50% of them six months later then (cumulatively) it can be a financial disaster for a small outfit.

23

astrongmaybe 02.16.07 at 10:10 pm

Isn’t the point not simply bookstores-as-sellers-of-books, but bookstores as part of the lived urban environment? (I’ve bought thousands of second-hand books, and I’ve never asked a bookstore clerk’s advice, to the best of my knowledge. Given how grouchy they usually are, I’d actively avoid doing so.) Conceivably you could get any book you want more efficiently and cheaply online or through the big chains. Conceivably every local bar might be better replaced with a franchised Irish Pub, too.

In Germany, small bookstores are, so far, still very much the norm, partly due to price controls, but also, I think, to one amazing service – for more or less any (German) book in print, they can have it shipped to the store the next morning, for nothing. Faster than Amazon, no fees, no deliveries too big for the mailbox, no missing the postman. Having said that, Abebooks in Europe is very fast too, in my experience – I’ve received stuff in less than 24 hours.

24

astrongmaybe 02.16.07 at 10:11 pm

Sorry to bookstore clerks… that should really be “how grouchy they very occasionally are.”

25

Slocum 02.16.07 at 11:27 pm

Slocum probably lives in some Republican slum where the library is stacked on the floor.

I believe I mentioned in this thread that I live in Ann Arbor.

At my rural Minnesota public library I have free ILL access to most of the college libraries in the state, including the University of Minnesota library. This means that I can and do get anything—most recently, “The Goths in the Crimea” and “Lithuania Ascending: A European Pagan Empire.”

Living in Ann Arbor rather than ‘some Republican slum somewhere’ (and being an alumus), I can access the Univ of Michigan libraries. Not free, though ($125/yr). And while the selection of academic books is obviously fabulous, their selection of many other types of books is lacking.

Slocum is unaware that some things are good for other people than him. Slocum’s model for interpreting public policy consists of an indefinitely large number of identical rational actors, all of whom happen to be exactly like Slocum. Libertarians are always like that.

Well, the great thing about the ‘ebay virtual public library’ is that it really *does* work for everybody (or at least everybody with a net connection and a mailing address). I live within biking distance of the downtown public library and walking distance of the main university libraries, but most Americans don’t have those kind of resources easily accessible, which makes used books over the net an even better way to go.

26

Michael E. Sullivan 02.17.07 at 12:15 am

I would mourn the demise of a few dozen independent bookstores that I’ve been to. But I’m not really sure any of them are dying. My experience isn’t that independents are dying (except to the extent that books in general are becoming less and less profitable), but mediocre independents are dying. Stores that did little but put the bestsellers and warhorses on the shelf are pretty much dead, unless they are big chains.

But the really cool bookstores, many of them are still around and I expect them to stay around. Most of them have cafes now, but they still have an interesting, eclectic selection and helpful staff.

I suspect the reason for libraries becoming less used has a lot to do with the price of books. Books used to be *outrageously* expensive.

I was shocked in rereading Oliver Twist to realize that one of his benefactors sent him to a bookstore with 5 pounds sterling to pay for a few books. That’s back when a pound sterling meant an actual pound of sterling, or roughly $160 at today’s market prices. So he’s sending the child to a bookstore with the modern equivalent of $800, in a time when the wages of a typical worker in today’s money were around $5,000. So we’re talking about a month’s wages for a factory worker or clerk to buy a couple of books. No wonder libraries were absolutely essential for a wide dissemination of knowledge! Nobody but the rich could afford to buy more than a few of the precious things.

Today, this need is much less drastic. I’ve bought well over a thousand books in my lifetime, and I’m pretty typical for a middle class, middle aged nerdy reader. I’ve never made more than 2-3 times the median wage.

27

Andrew John 02.17.07 at 2:54 am

This was touched on upthread, but a huge contribution of the big stores is the fact that they allow children to read books in the store. As such, they are starting to play the role that libraries used to play, but in a more welcoming way. At least here in Singapore, the local Borders is filled on the weekends with kids just sitting around reading.

Also, most of the discussion above applies equally to coffeeshops. Those who are lucky enough to live in college towns with cool independent coffeeshops suffer a real loss when those stores close. But Starbucks and the other chains are now supplying half-decent coffee to places where it used to be next to impossible to get a drinkable cup. I genuinely regret the loss of some of the old coffeeshops I knew, and yes, their coffee was often better. But on net, I think the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world) is a better place for coffee drinkers than it was two decades ago, just like it is a better place for readers.

28

Jon Kay 02.17.07 at 2:59 am

Perspective’s interesting. I loved the “life-threatening” bookstore in Baltimore because it had unmatched SF stock until Amazon came along. They had good SF books I’ve never seen anywhere else in person. Though part of the reason for a different perspective may be that I lived nearby and had lots of opportunity to get used to the cats and people.

I’m sad that place went down, but ISTR it went down for personal reasons rather than competition. If it had survived to today it should’ve done OK because it was the ultimate case of the superior niche.

29

rented mule 02.17.07 at 4:05 am

Something else to consider: workers make more at the big chains, some of which are even unionized. The Kurlands (in New York) and the Duttons (in Los Angeles) really couldn’t afford to pay their employees much above the minimum wage.

30

Wade 02.17.07 at 7:50 am

This quote I just found on Amazon.com should illuminate astrongmaybe’s observation about clerks’ grumpiness:

“I had a bookstore clerk search the entire bookstore, yet there were no recently published books I had not yet read on the art of having hope at a societal level.”

31

astrongmaybe 02.17.07 at 11:36 am

OK OK, wade I was only joking! And to the extent I was serious, I wasn’t complaining – the spectacular unpredictability and eccentricity of bookstore staff (mostly the owners, come to think of it) is one of the losses which go unmourned, as we move into this happy world of child-friendly chainstores with excellent parking facilities.

In Brighton, England, near the station, there used to be a bookstore (big for a small one, if you see what I mean) that looked like a truck had deposited the books, huge toppling piles, unsorted new stock nearly blocking your way at every turn, etc. The owner was a man who, at whatever time of day, always looked like he’d had a couple of sharpeners in the pub next door. He had a red nose, and stood at the door – he faintly bowed as you came in, greeted everyone with grave politesse. He may or may not have worn a cravat. They wouldn’t even have let him in as a customer in B & N, let alone work there. The place was a treasure house. I haven’t been to Brighton in years; I’d be amazed if it were still there. I bet the Borders which replaced it has delicious coffee and very, very comfy couches.

If you want some insight into small bookstores as savage ecosystem, check out Iain Sinclair’s accounts of life with Driffield…
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4159/is_20030817/ai_n12742229

32

Arthur D. Hlavaty 02.17.07 at 1:23 pm

The problem is that there is no longer much good stuff published in chaep, small mass-market paperbacks.

33

tom s. 02.17.07 at 1:45 pm

Judging from the comments, one of the big appeals of the chain bookstore is the ability to read while drinking coffee. Again, Canada has the big chain without the advantages. When Chapters first set up their chain, you could do this. No longer – the coffee shop area is still there, but unpurchased books are not allowed in that part of the store.

Plus, while Chapters/Indigo has driven out many independent bookstores it is not (unlike some other countries) necessarily because it is a better business model. Chapters itself, despite 70% (I think) of the book trade and despite owning the biggest distributor, overinvested and had to sell out to the second-ranked Indigo, which has closed some of the stores and introduced more non-book items into the remainder (candles, CDs, cards etc).

I guess the point is just that there is not a single “chain vs. indie” bookstore story across the world. As the German comment already made clear.

34

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.17.07 at 2:59 pm

The loss of diversely-stocked paperback racks in non-bookstore outlets (drugstores, groceries, etc) is indeed a problem. What was great about the postwar mass-market paperback revolution is that, from the late 1940s to roughly the middle 1980s, families from the half of the country that never sets foot in a bookstore were constantly exposed to a huge diversity of books–genre fiction, literary fiction, public-affairs titles, all kinds of stuff–while out shopping for cereal and paper towels. Specifically, the kids from those families got exposed, and some of them picked up the habit of buying and reading books for fun.

A lot of the racks are still there, but as another commenter pointed out, they’re now stocked with a much narrower range of titles. The fact that the wholesalers who stock these racks have chosen to go this route is the biggest single reason that, as Arthur Hlavaty points out, so many fewer titles are published in cheap, small-format “mass market” editions these days.

How all this happened is a long and complicated story that actually has almost nothing to do with any change in Americans’ interest in buying and reading a diverse selection of books. It’s a classic case of market failure, of an industry responding more to its own institutional needs than to the desires of actual customers. The industry in question is magazine and paperback wholesaling, not book publishing. I really need to write this up.

Meanwhile, it’s almost certainly true that the chains impose some notable difficulties on smaller publishers; and yet the average chain superstore does a much better job than the average independent bookstore of making small-press material available to readers. (This assertion may seem hard to believe, but remember this: the average independent bookstore isn’t Tattered Cover, Powell’s, or Shakespeare & Co.) Indeed, as Slocum points out, the sheer size of the modern superstores forces them to stock stuff that’s a considerable distance down the long tail. Certainly the national B&N buyer I know best spends a great deal of time paying attention to small presses.

Finally, regarding comment #22, it needs to be said that matter of chains-versus-independents argument is completely different in Canada than in the US. Canadian bookselling labors under the particular catastrophe of being dominated by a single chain conglomerate, Chapters/Indigo, that has no serious competition whatsoever. Here in the US, we have Borders/Walden vs. B&N/Dalton, which makes quite a bit of difference.

35

zozazumi 02.17.07 at 8:37 pm

After entering my local Barnes & Noble I’m assaulted by a noisefest of crapola rock music. Add to it the constant PA system beeps, squeaks, and announcements, mothers with wailing children, loud cell phone dipshits, and the assholes who sit on the floor and block entire book shelves from view . . . well, the experience becomes an absurd grand guignol of bad manners and commercial indifference.

But then, I also think we’re moving back into the dark ages, with a small, literate upper tier and a vast bovine lower tier. Lords and vassals of the computer age. Wish I could live fifty more years to see how things pan out. Hey, send me a postcard . . . if you can still write.

36

John Emerson 02.17.07 at 10:35 pm

How significant is e-commerce compared to chains in this process? I never go to chains, but except for Powells (class by itself) I don’t go into indie bookstores much because of limited selection. My feeling is that e-commerce has been the real killer.

37

Ross Smith 02.18.07 at 2:52 am

SamChevre: Antother huge benefit of the chains … is that they will let you read their books without buying them.

A conversation I overheard in Borders a couple of years ago:

He: “So, have you decided what you’re going to buy yet?”

She: “I’m not going to buy anything. I can’t, I haven’t got any money.”

He: “You’ve been dragging me around bookshops all afternoon when you didn’t have any money?”

She: “Oh, I never go into bookshops when I have money. I’d just spend it all.”

38

Linca 02.18.07 at 3:01 am

The problem with large chains is that one of the end result is having a couple companies selling half the books in the country. Sure, they may remain nice to the small press, but once the Evil Capitalist Owner of the chain decides he doesn’t want a book published, well, it it isn’t.

Which actually happened in France ; Pinault, owner of the FNAC chain, made it clear to a publishing company that theirs publishing a non-firendly biography about him would be a bad idea…

39

Frowner 02.18.07 at 4:43 pm

For me, the process of looking for books is really different at a bookstore and online. Online is exciting, because I can find out about such a broad range of books, but at a bookstore my own bumbling mental processes get a chance to work: one book cover reminds me of another, and I go look for it; I see a pretty display of cookbooks and look at that; I look at the index of something and remember another book, and so on. That’s just not the same on the internet, because I don’t have the material presence of the books. Plus I like going to bookstores, although I hate chains–I hate the hugely bright lights and the way everything looks just a little bit grey; I hate the industrial carpet; I hate the division of books into “Fiction” and “Literature”; I hate that “Metaphysics” has come to mean “New Age”. And chains generally don’t stock what I want–their science fiction selection is extremely middle-of-the-road and recent; they tend not to stock the academic books I want, especially if I want one published more than a year or two ago; their selection of history is mostly very shallow. Plus the awful music and the people who–pardon me for saying this–drink coffee while reading books they don’t plan to buy, then replace the books on the shelf with coffee stains and crumbs on them. I prefer only my own food stains on my books, thank you, especially when I’m paying full price.

But I know that the world will get less and less suited to me, until I finally die crabbed, alone and cantankerous, probably crushed by a heap of my own battered paperbacks.

40

Foose 02.18.07 at 7:07 pm

I distinguish between independent bookstores that sell new books, whose disappearance I am indifferent to (largely because of the annoying types of customers they attract and their often precious and pretentious approach to their choice of stock), but I am quite distraught at the evaporation of used-book stores. If you’re fascinated by a history, or enjoy older authors, used-book stores are wonderful places to spend hours in. And as Frowner notes above, being able to browse among a lot of (material) books is essential in my view to being introduced to new subjects and new authors; you can open up books at random, see what they’re like, whether you like the writing style, etc. While I like abebooks and have ordered a lot of books through the service, it’s mostly useful if you have a good idea of what the book is that you’re ordering before you order it; i.e., you like the author, or other authors have cited it as key to their research. Sometimes I’ve been disappointed when, unable to find out any information about a book except that it covers a topic I’m interested in (because of disappearing used-bookstores that might have stocked it, where I could actually see what I’m getting), I’ve gone ahead and ordered it and found it immensely boring and comprised of 37 pages of actual text followed by 200 pages of notes, or (admittedly because I failed to read the description properly) heavily underlined, or perhaps smelling oddly. Used-book stores are useful filters; they are a sort of pre-Internet, with all sorts of information if you knew how to search among the the piled up books on the floor, the dust, the cats and the cronies of the owners.

41

tom s. 02.19.07 at 2:10 am

frowner (#39) makes a good point about the difference between online and shelf-based browsing. There are many books I’ve come across one way that I’d never have seen the other. I found, for example, the very bizarre Hungarian novelist Agota Kristof on my local library shelf because she was near some other author I was looking for. I can guarantee I’d never have met her any other way, but I’m glad I did.

42

EWI 02.19.07 at 2:43 pm

A couple of times a year I would go to Fred Hanna’s

I too, recall Hanna’s with fondness as the scene of many afternoons of time stolen from lectures. As you may know, Hanna’s itself was bought out and ‘renovated’ into another Eason’s branch a few years ago.

Read’s next-door has just gone the same way, too, and Waterstone’s/Hodges&Figgis on Dawson Street are both actually owned by the same company. Some choice!

43

ejh 02.20.07 at 4:18 pm

Ah, shame I didn’t catch this before. I work in an independent bookshop, in Huesca, in Spain. It’s the only sort we have here.

Comments on this entry are closed.