Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Bring Back Indie Bookstores
In middle school, I was something of a dork. Not even a nerd, which is considered cool today, but a dork who spent most of his time with his nose buried in a book. I was friends with the school librarian, a neat woman who, in addition to introducing me to books, introduced me to dysentery by way of the Oregon Trail (which was cutting edge at the time!).
I wish I could remember her name, because she was responsible for encouraging my love of reading. She never talked down to me or treated me like a kid. She talked to me, listened to me, and always knew just what book to give me.
In high school, I worked at a Waldenbooks. It was a wonderful time for me. Aside from having to sell those horrible discount cards, I loved talking to customers about books. I read anything I could get my hands on, and was eager to discuss and recommend my finds with anyone who walked through the door.
My friends and I would spend hours in small bookstores, talking to the staff, discussing the latest and greatest books we were interested in. I almost never left without purchasing something the bookseller recommended.
The reason marketing rarely works to sell books, and the reason why some of these self-publishing success stories keep coming out of nowhere, is because word-of-mouth sells books, not marketing. People like my middle school librarian and the booksellers at local book stores putting books into the hands of the right readers. That's how books find an audience.
I've got nothing against Barnes & Noble. I wrote a lot of Deathday in one, and visit them whenever I can, but those stores are simply too large for the sales staff to really interact with the customers. Walk into a BN and then find an indie book store and talk to the staff, and you'll see what I mean. Every time I go to NYC, I stop in at Books Of Wonder. They specialize in children's book, and I've yet to meet a single member of their staff who doesn't love children's book and isn't bursting to share their opinions on their favorites.
With the news coming out that Barnes & Noble, the last big chain book store around, is going to be closing hundreds of stores over the next decade, I think the time is right for a resurgence in independent bookstores. Stores like Books of Wonder that specialize in a genre or an experience.
People often state that book stores like BN offer no added value. If you can purchase a book for $24.99 at BN or $16.99 at Amazon, why would you spend the extra cash? What value does the BN add to make it worth while? It's a good question. One I hope BN is able to answer before they go the way of Borders. When it comes to indie book stores, the value they add is in the staff, the knowledge they bring. The internet isn't going to hand your kid a book and get her excited about reading the way a great bookseller or librarian can. Amazon's recommendations, while decent, can't ever beat the passion of a real, live person.
In addition to passionate, knowledgeable staff, indie stores also work to bring authors to the community. I did my first event at Books of Wonder. It was amazing. The value that these kinds of events add to the community more than makes up for the extra couple of bucks you'd spend.
I remember in the 90's when big chain bookstores pushed the indies out. It was hailed as great for the consumer and capitalism at its finest. Now Amazon is doing the same thing to the big retailers. Again, people are proclaiming that bookstores must adapt or die. And, to a degree, I agree with the sentiment. I purchase books from Amazon. It's convenient, cheap, and their selection is stellar. But I end up buying books that I ultimately don't like. I'd gladly pay extra to shop in a store where the guy or girl behind the counter has read the books and can tell me whether it's worth my money. Sadly, the nearest indie bookstores are over an hour from me, and I rarely get the time to drive to them.
I'm not sure what the future of books holds, but I know that some of the best books I've ever read are being published right now. It'd be a shame for those books to go unread because they lacked an advocate. Books belong in the hands of readers, not gathering dust in a distribution warehouse.