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.


  1. If you like Oregon Trail, you've got to check out Organ Trail.

    Sorry. I'll read the rest now.

    1. Is that a real thing? Please tell me that's a real thing.

    2. You bet your fucking ass. I'll link up:

    3. I sense my productivity bottoming out.

    4. Oh definitely say goodbye to your afternoon. It's actually pretty hard, too. Took me like three tries to even get to the coast.

  2. See - there needs to be an online version, because not everyone lives downtown. I now rarely buy books that weren't recommended by internet friends, or at least have a buzz, but then not everyone is aspiring author who blogs and has lots of cool writer friends. So it would be cool if there was somewhere to go online to buy AND to talk about books.

    Once, it like 1998, I was looking for a particular record, yes record, and I emailed the guy at Breakbeat Science, which used to be an independent record store in New York, and all I had for him was one lyric. But he knew the song, and he sold me the record.

    Something like that for books would be amazing. Maybe it already exists, and I just don't know it.

    1. But see, that's the point. You shouldn't have to live downtown to be able to find a local bookstore. Where I grew up, it was't a big place, and yet there were three indie bookstores within 5 miles of my house. All gone, now.

      Goodreads is an attempt to create a community on-line, but I find it to be of limited value. It's based on friends, and so it limits my exposure to books. Booksellers, by nature, are exposed to many types of books. Maybe you don't know anyone who really digs mystery novels, but your bookseller has a customer who recommends this one mystery and she then recommends it to you. You just don't get that on-line.

      And quite frankly, this may be the grump in me, I'm tired of doing everything online. Sometimes I WANT to go talk to a person in real life. I want a recommendation from someone whose hand I can shake. I think moving everything to the Internet is really screwing us up.

    2. No, I totally hear you. It's just weird for me. I mean, I'm from the city. Like where I was born, I could WALK into downtown Seattle in like 10 minutes. The city has so many things I love and miss.

      But then when I finally grew up, and outgrew all my BS, and my kids were older, and we got ready to buy a house, we ended up basically in the country (exurban, but whatever), and now there are literally no bookstores, or good restaurants or anything but movie theaters and MacDonald's around us.

      I guess I'm actually reinforcing your point, aren't I? It would be really nice to have an Indie Book Shop near us. There's one not far from the office, and I do go there, but it's not the same when you grew up at a place like the Elliot Bay Bookstore.

      So I suppose the internet is great, but it would be even better if it were only a backup to what you're talking about.

    3. Maybe I'm just to freaking nostalgic. Maybe books really on their way out. I just think that you can't inspire a love of books over the internet. I think it has to involve people putting hands into the books of other people.

      But yeah, you're right...the Internet should be a backup. A resource but not THE resource. Germany still has a good, solid bookstore culture because prices are regulated. Once a price is set, it's set. You'll pay the same price no matter where you get it from, even Amazon. I'd put it out there that price is Amazon's biggest advantage, and that if Amazon and bookstores were on a level playing field, we'd see more bookstores around.

    4. Also, I apparently forgot how to use my words in that last comment. Word vomit. Sorry.


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