Death to the Bookstore, Long Live Books and Stores

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Jackson’s Books in Salem where I read in 2002 and where I just read last night from Shoot the Buffalo (after a four drive there/four drive back) is closing at the end of this year. The co-owner of the store, Greg Millard, hid in the back well past the time the reading should have started. I wandered the stacks and tried to recognize anyone (the two or three patrons) who happened to be in the store. I could tell I freaked them out because they left. I was the only one in the store.


This was the first time where the host of a reading actually hid. The day before another prose writer read read. She too, despite the excellence of her book, despite its laudatory reviews in People and Entertainment Weekly, despite a publicist, and the supposed support of a major press (Houghton Mifflin / Mariner) didn’t have any takers for her reading either.

The bookstore sits between a university campus and the Oregon governmental buildings in a pretty 1970s era campus mixing stands of trees, flowing water, and cement planks hanging over the water. When I read in 2002, a very modest crowd associated with the press who published my book Misplaced Alice, StringTown Press, showed up. The book was reviewed in the daily paper, The Statesmen Journal. i didn’t except an around the block crowd. But I thougth someone would come, at least one someone. On this trip, there wasn’t anyone in the bookstore.

In 2002, going to Salem seemed worth the trip. Part of this was that I had been to very few bookstores when my first book was released. I was trying to figure things out about how a writer might find people interested in reading their work. Going to bookstores seemed like a logical thing to do. Polly Buckingham who publishes StringTown really loves independent bookstores and for a time come every late summer, she would drive around to all of the bookstores in the Pacific Northwest to distribute her magazine.

During my trips in Oregon for Misplaced Alice, I often visited nearly abandoned stores. I read in a bookstore in Seaside on the Oregon Coast called Tillamook Head. I read with a poet, Karin Temple, and we drove at dusk to the tiny bookstore. When we arrived in the bookstore, the owner and his wife had baked cookies and set up a modest number of chairs that were too many. Aside from Karin, her friend, myself and the owners of the store, there wasn’t anyone. But are small company was someone. We read seeing as how there were cookies and punch. At one point while I was reading a possible customer opened the door and then seeing us reading, closed the door. The owner jumped out of his chair and chased after them to encourage them to come into the store. But they walked as quickly as possible away from the reading.

As odd as it seems, though, readings in bookstores even if hardly anyone or sometimes no one, worked. My books inexplicably sold a modest number. I still don’t know why.

But in Salem this time around at Jackson’s Books I kind of confronted the possibility that the bookstore as a source of literary culture and the point of contact between book culture and the civic life of the city is past it. Jackson’s Books does a number of old-fashioned things I’ll be sad to see go away. They stack new hardcover books for instance in heaps near the front door. Most of them are turned with their spines out. A table had the books not in stacks with the covers up but in rows with the spine up.

Jackson’s Book was one of the central stores in the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA). For many years Greg, who was hiding in the back, was the president. He is currently the Secretary/Treasurer of the PNBA. On the wall above the empty seats, he had framed posters from past Booksellers awards. Tellingly the posters ended in 1998. But from 1992-1998 they contained many titles that I have come to associate not only with the prize, but the vitality in the economy of independent booksellers and their customers to create an audience for books written in and often about the Pacific Northwest, books such as The Brothers K by Robert Duncan won an award in 1992. Other books included, Field Notes by Berry Lopez, The Gift of the Body by Rebecca Brown, and Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala. I think it should be noted that almost all of the books awarded the prize were published by New York presses, with the rare northwest press, Copper Canyon, StoryLine, and the UW Press winning a prize on occassion. Otherwise the names of presses are all of the big, East coast powerhouses, HarperCollins, Doubleday, and Random House. It should not have to be pointed out that these big, East coast powerhouses are not independent at all nor are they Pacific Northwestern at all, but are rather the subsidiaries for the most part of massive international media conglomerates.

It seemed telling to me that Jackson’s Books series of posters ended in 1998, because it as at the end of the 90s that the forces that would undo the vital economic relationship with their readers was already in place. In the mid-1990s, Barnes and Noble had spread throughout the urban and suburban areas of the Pacific Northwest. Borders followed closely behind. Borders, itself, is based on the large independents bookstore in Ann Arbor and as such represents many of the features that one would seek in an independent bookstore. They have coffee. They offer “staff” picks. They offer a wide selection. In fact it is in this matter of selection alongside the deep discounts they offer where an economy of scale has allowed Barnes and Noble (and Borders) to do the same business the independent bookstores do, but better. You can buy your bestsellers for a lot less money. You are also more likely to find the entire current catalog of any of the big, East coast powerhouses. Why go to a dusty independent bookstore that may not have coffee in order to be told, “We can always order it for you?”

Where independent bookstores excelled was at this last step, “we can order it for you.” Unlike someone at a chain store, they would be able to work Books-in-Print and figure out where the book could be found. Small press books are often not distributed well or at all and might require personal contact with the press in order to get the book into the store. A chain will say, “We can’t find the book.” At one time, an independent bookstore would find the book for you.

bspicks_about.gif But this was the state of things around 1998. At that time in order to fight the chains, Book Sense was launched and it has since consolidated independent bookstores into a structure that resembles Barnes and Noble, but has none of the benefits of scale. That is, much of the homogenization found in the chains are now voluntarily found in so called independent bookstores. They have piles of Book Sense catalogs and many of their websites points directly into the book sense database which has replaced Books-in-Print as the search of first resort at many bookstores. Instead of working Books-in-Print, a harried independent bookstore staff will invariably consult Book Sense and declare that they can’t find the title. This is the same response as a chain bookstore. One of the best distributors of poetry for instance, SPD, does not show up in Book Sense’s catalog.

The featured books in a Book Sense store are depressingly similar to the featured books at a Barnes and Noble. It is the point of predictability that a few years ago I was able to predict that The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova would become the Book Sense book of the year as soon as I saw it at my Book Sense affiliate.

This is not to say that Book Sense has killed the indepedence of all bookstores, but rather that I think it has become one of the terms of the survival for many smaller stores. The main kill off independent bookstores in the 1990s has slowed way down and in fact the American Book Sellers association reported a modest increase in business for independents in the last three years, and this in an industry that has seen an overall decrease in business.

Not all independent bookstores follow Book Sense completely lock step. I suspect if you find a bookstore not following Book Sense you will find a bookstore sensibly connected to its patrons. I asked the staff at City Lights in San Francisco about Book Sense and at first they had no idea what I was talking about, and then they said, “oh yeah, that,” and pointed at a faded sticker on the front window. The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle and Powells World of Books in Oregon have no real need for Book Sense and their business shows it. Jackson’s Books had no real need for Book Sense either and yet without exploiting its own qualities it appeared to be no different than Barnes and Noble, except that you paid full price for the bestsellers.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in bookstores this last year. It seems a few bookstores are thriving, such as Village Books in Bellingham or Powells in Portland. These bookstores though subsist on a complex relationship to their communities. They don’t just sell books. And they are in both cases in central, easily accessible portions of the city. But many of the bookstores I’ve visited seem deserted. Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane was empty except for the handful of people who’d come to hear me read and the host who was condenscending to the audience (customers) that did manage to show up. She was quick to point out that a lot of people came to see Chuck Palahniuk read. The room was full for him. I thanked her for pointing that out.

What I suspect has been the real kick in the ass for independent bookstores, though, has been the rise of the Internet as a social network and commercial platform. Everyone points to Amazon. And yeah, Amazon is THE reason. But to my way of thinking it is more pervasive than just Amazon. Greg Millard blamed two things for the death of his bookstore. He said lately the only time he hears about his best customers is when he is reading the obituary. All of his readers are dying off. The other thing he blames is the Internet. He said more than fifty percent of books are not even sold in bookstores. He also said that only nine percent of books sold are sold in independent bookstores. When one considers that the overall profit of books continues to fall, this does not look like a percentage that will grow much without some radical changes.

Because books are not sold in bookstores is why I can find success with a reading in a bookstore even if no one comes. I can find a success reading on a sidewalk because the activity of a reading stirs a variety of channels. In fact I dd just this in Baltimore last year when my alma matter The Writing Seminatrs decided not to provide me a room to read in. All I needed was an address and a time and so I booked myself on the sidewalk at the edge of campus and read. I read recently at a King County Library (also not a bookstore) and sold seven books. That week copies of the book sold from used bookstores, Amazon.com, and Powells. Additional holds appeared on the copies the library owned. My sales ranking which has been in near oblivion climbed back into the living (briefly.) A reading generates events listings, possible reviews, articles, and talk both online and in the real world. However just as sales do not need a bookstore, a reading does not need a bookstore and increasingly need not even been in be in the “real” world but can happen online.

I think these forces cannot help mean the end of bookstores who do not change their business practices. The practices are rooted in the 1930s, with the Great Depression, the rise of dime stores selling popular paperbacks, and the Book of the Month Club. Return policies designed to protect the booksellers have become the great hammer used by chains to crush small businesses. Bookstores can return stock they had not sold rather then being forced to buy it. This allows chains to buy and sell popular books at much greater discounts than smaller stores. But even so, the model of Jackson’s Books is that of a bookstore the only serious retail outlet for books in their town, a city with a defined downtown core, foot traffic from people conducting their business, in a media climate where just about all mass media was printed. We are a far cry from this in 2006.

And yet it is not as grim as it seems, I think. It’s certainly grim for bookstores like Jackson’s Books mired as they are in habit and a blindness to the economy of the written word in their own cities. What kind of regional book award is given to books produced in New York? In a sense the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association has been pissing in its own bed. Random House doesn’t give a damn about Jackson’s Books. — why add value with an award to their books?

“One thing that is making it more difficult for some PNBA booksellers to survive difficult times is that they are having ‘less and less communication with publishers and their sales reps,’ [executive director] Chambliss said. ‘We’re getting less and less attention.’ Several publishers have cut back on representation. ‘They just don’t think we’re a large part of the market, so it’s our job to convince them that we are. We’re hoping we can give them good numbers.’ The only positive side of this situation is, Chambliss went on, that ‘authors themselves are more eager than they ever have been because they don’t get support from publishers.’ — Publishers Weekly, March 5, 2003

If bookstores able to redefine themselves in the context of an actual the actual production of books by our community, I believe a sustainable literary culture will be possible. There are already bookstores like this and as they learn how to conduct their business, to me some remarkable things are in the offing. I’m thinking of Reading Frenzy in Portland, Open Books in Seattle, Quimby’s in Chicago, and Atomic Books in Baltimore. I’m sure there are hundreds more. Perhaps the ultimate success story is the amazing Powell’s in Portland.

A bookstore as a physical repository of books is a place. A place, paradoxically, become a valuable commodity in a partially virtual world. Eventually virtual people and audiences want to converge and meet in the flesh. Books themselves I suspect will remain tactile objects, and just as the vinyl record has survived the Eight Track, Cassette Tape, and CD — the book will survive as a retail/fetish object despite or maybe because of digital media. Books have not been the central object of cultural production for some time, but I doubt they are going to disappear nor will the physical retail structure. Doubtlessly though it will change. I’m excited to see what it looks like.

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