I’m not sure what to make of this article by Tyler Cowen on Slate in which he claims that shopping at independent bookstores is nothing more than posturing. We do it to be cool basically, but the chain stores really do things better. Obviously, I disagree with much of the article, but I’m more curious about what you think? Do you think independent bookstores provide a useful service, or should we just go the way of the dodo and concede that Cowen is correct? Do you think independents have anything valuable to offer anymore?
I am SO sick of this argument. Especially since so many great indie bookstores are going out of business at the moment. It strikes me as crass gloating.
Anyway, the bottom line for me is that I am rarely if ever surprised by chain bookstores. Often, they don’t have what I’m looking for and I have to special order. Or they have it in the wrong place.
At the independent bookstores I go to, I’m often surprised and often find what I’m looking for. I often have good conversations with someone who works there.
It’s just like the difference between my local coffee shop and Starbucks; one makes me feel better than the other, because it’s a more unique, personal experience. Same deal with my local arthouse movie theater — seeing the same movie there, as opposed to a chain theater is a _better_ experience. By their very nature, chains are incapable of delivering that. Are they useful? Are they a boon to small towns especially? Sure. But they’re not the whole picture and as we lose more and more independent bookshops, we are _losing_ something more valuable than many people acknowledge.
I hate blandness and much of what is prized about the communal, replicatable experience of any kind of chain is necessarily bland so as not to offend anyone’s sensibility.
Heaven forbid someone should feel good about where they shop.
Are there “posers” who walk around wearing their “indie bookstore shopper” badge for all to see? Probably. But I think that this article is itself a pose, designed to A) draw attention to the author and his “I know I’m taking the unpopular stance” approach to making a name for himself, and B) sort of lame.
Maybe I’ll write an article about how people who read anything literary are posers, trying to make the “American Idol” masses feel stupid. Fame, I am your willing slave!
Obviously I’m on the indies’ side. I think chains just can’t be the resource for community and individuality that chains can, and that huge institutions are inherently at risk for immoral, corporate-type behavior, even if they have the best of intentions.
But as Gwenda of Shaken and Stirred says, I don’t think chains are inherently evil. And indie bookstore types can get a little holier-than-thou. But is it wrong to do the right thing for the wrong reasons? If you question whether you are pretentious for going to an indie, even though it may in fact be better, and therefore do not go to an indie, what have you gained?
I’m reading Laura Miller’s dense academic book RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS right now, about the “bookstore wars” between chains and indies. It’s kind of funny — why does everyone think it’s an either/or? The author of this piece seems to think so, and sadly us indie folks can overlook the potential for even chains to employee smart booksellers and stage killer events, or even to carry that obscure self-help book we just don’t want to bother with.
In order to level the playing field, I think we need advocates for independent bookstores, not against them. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that we’re not the only game in town.
Oops, I mean “I think chains just can’t be the resource for community and individuality that INDIES can.”
It seemed like a remarkably uninformed article to me. He doesn’t seem to know the statistics about how money goes back into local communities from local bookstores (chain store profits go elsewhere). He also seems to have access to much better-funded libraries than I do: most libraries don’t have the funds to purchase lots of new books, and so you end up with exactly the kind of things that you could find at a B&N, but not the quirkier fare that an independent store can stock. Our library has a sign up by the checkout counter, saying that their funding has been cut and they can’t order all requested books. There are fabulous libraries out there — I’ve visited some of them — but most don’t have enough money.
He also doesn’t seem to know how centralized buying works.
Finally, he doesn’t seem to understand that most of the customers shopping at indie bookstores are there because good books and good bookstores make them _happy_. What does he say, that shopping at indie bookstores is about cool people accruing more cool points? What the hell?
And yes, as Gwenda has already says, there’s something depressing about all chain bookstores looking exactly the same. It’s like high school.
Okay, to be somewhat contrarian here:
Nobody has noted this, but Tyler Cowen is looking at this issue as a professor of economics. I think this is an important thing to consider when responding to his piece.
I happen to think that indie bookstores offer far more of a selection and that indie bookstores tend to hire more knowledgeable staff (at least here in San Francisco) than chain bookstores. (Of course, I can also name any number of “indie” bookstores in the Bay Area that are run by the most disreputable and miserable people I’ve ever had the misfortune to interact with behind a clerk’s desk. Buy me a drink and I’ll name names!)
However, I actually agree with the premise that an individual isn’t particularly “special” or “independent” by way of shopping at an indepenendent bookstore. Of course, this objection is more enbdemic of a widespread problem I see in American culture. But the whole notion of becoming “empowered” by shopping “sensibly” is reminiscent to the ironic bohemianism David Brooks describes in “Bobos to Paradise” or the mythical culture of specialness Hal Niedzviecki profiled in his book, “Hello, I’m Special.” People want to belong to a community with a certain consciousness, but, in the process, they may adopt similar consumerist impulses. And if one is a book-buying automaton, how much of an alternative is this to maxing out your credit card at Borders?
Barnes & Noble, for example, also caters to a book community for those who live in the suburbs, in places which may lack a solid indie bookstore. They offer readings, book club discussions and the like. To play the devil’s advocate, should a chain bookstore be castigated for offering a similar community? And if indie and chain both offer communities, is the question of uniqueness moot?
Cowen is also right about used bookstores. The simple fact remains that there are certain tomes which are apparently so obscure that one can only get them through abebooks.com. (Of course, in my case, this comes after a thorough run through San Francisco and Berkeley used bookstores. But then, I’m a bit of a freak because I kind of like the real-life quest component of finding a particular book. But I would guess that your average person is going to go straight to abebooks to pick the used title that she wants.)
The point is that one is obligated to pick a side on this indie vs. chain bookstores debate, but neither advocate considers that the considerable gray area outside of this dichotomy.
DC has fared better than other cities when it comes to indie bookstores, but still when a box store opens on the block, bookstores close or move. That’s the truth. Chapters, a “literary bookstore,” with only one location, two employees (co-owners) who put in ungodly long work hours, recently filed as ” a nonprofit” to keep its doors open. While it may sound like a punchline— “nonprofit bookstore”— desperate times call for inventive measures.
Chapters turned to its customers to help them raise funds, and when they were on the mat, readers in this city stepped up and wrote checks to keep their doors open. I am not running a commercial here for Chapters, but they support first time authors, small presses and lesser known poets, and are willing to take risks on more non-commercial inventory. Something larger chain stores are not known for doing.
I would also put in a plug here for Olssons, with five locations in the city, each store has its own buyers and reflects the reading tastes of each neighborhood–as opposed to a one size fits all approach by buyers at the larger chain stores. (There’s even an Olssons bookstore at Natl Airport that stocks literary titles as well as bestsellers.)
I don’t shop indie for hipster cred (as if!), I shop for selection, service and inventory.
Wendi, who now feels like a DC booster…
Whether or not one should support independents depends heavily on whether they’re truly indie stores, or just small mainstream stores. I’ve got an “independent” store two blocks from my office here inn Chicago which I’d love to slavishly support. But the sad fact is that they carry few small press titles and virtually nothing by great local writers, while filling an entire window display with copies of “The Kite Runner.” I routinely walk into this “independent”, can’t find anything I’m looking for, and then leave again to walk the extra five blocks to Borders where I can almost always find what I need. I’d love to support this store, but it needs to work a hell of a lot harder than it does.
He made several claimes that rang untrue to me, so I distrusted his assumptions.
Like: “Blogs are on the rise, and most readers prefer the ones with the shorter posts.” Really? Which ones? Which readers? Where is the poll?
“Many customers want very recent best-sellers, often so they can feel they are reading something trendy, something other people are talking about.” Yeah? According to whom? Sounds like an assumption he’s making, rather than anything based in fact.
“Many of the smaller indies have financed themselves by selling, in a separate part of the store, pornography.” Name one. I can’t think of one in LA that has done so. (Dutton’s, XXX!)
As far as I’m concerned, more people reading is good, so big bookstores are fine. But I’ll always start out shopping at the indie.
I don’t see this as a war between independents vs. chains necessarily. I think the two can co-exist. Certainly when I lived in upstate NY, the only bookstore in town was a Waldenbooks, so I drove 30 minutes away to the nearest Borders. I discovered Murakami at a Borders in fact, due to a staff member recommending it. I suppose I take exception to Cowen’s dismissal of the indies, as if we offer nothing at all. I like to think that most people shop at my store because of our selection and our staff, but I’m sure some do just because we’re not a chain (there is one just down the street after all). There’s a great deal wrong in Cowen’s article and I don’t want anyone to think I’m objecting simply because he’s a proponent of the chains. Chains need to exist, but so do the independents. And like Carolyn says, where’s the data for some of his claims.
Slate seems, within its DNA, to have the provocative playfulness of its founding editor Michael Kinsley. To his credit, KInsley could and can usually pull off various logical and rhetorical acrobatics. Other than Hitchens and a very few others, the rest of these kids trying out for the NY Times rarely deliver anything substantial—just barely clever snarkery.
Independent bookstores vs corporate chains? This is an issue to waste time arguing? Puhleeeese! On the other hand the public conversation around books has become so degraded that the NYT has appointed itself (or Sam Tannenhaus has) arbiter of the best American novel of the past quarter century. What’s next? I can hardly wait.
By the way the most compelling bookstore in the Boston area closed its doors a few years ago— the non pareil Avenue Victor Hugo. For those who remember, perhaps a moment of silence and a vow to ignore Slate’s future cultural gibberish.
Using Cody’s as an example of your local independent, and then saying your local B&N is likely to have a better selection than your local independent, is like using Stranger Things Happen (hi, Kelly) as an example of self-publishing, and then saying a book from an NY publisher is likely to be better than one that’s self-published. It might still be true, on balance, but the example you picked totally undermines your credibility.
I appreciate the big chains. I appreciate that you can now find a decent book and an okay cup of coffee in, say, Medford, Oregon, or Pueblo, Colorado, even if you just got off the freeway. I’m also tired of the crapshoot that is looking for any particular book at the classy little independent on the corner, no matter how nice the people who run it. But lumping a Cody’s or an Elliott Bay with those places doesn’t make any more sense than lumping a Borders with the Simply Books at the airport.
No, I don’t see the two sides of the coin. The rare occasion when I go to a chain-bookstore, I feel I am in a warehouse; the books on the front table are only what the NYT selected, and the only thing the staff will do for you, is search the computer. (Although I don’t blame them for that.) Besides driving many independents out of bussiness they also killed Waterstone. (In my area they were the most succesful (economically) bookstores for six consequtive years.) Chain bookstores’s major function is to let people feel cultured for the 15 minutes while they are drinking their coffee in store, but not an inspiration for reading. But maybe that is the goal?