Saturday, June 21, 2008

Booksellers and Independent Bookstores

Over the last week, I've been spending a great deal of time talking with independent booksellers. I am lucky enough to be living in a city, San Francisco, with some of the most active independent booksellers.

When I try to explain to people outside of the book industry why independent bookstores are so important, people often don't understand. It could be that my view is so much as an insider that it doesn't connect with people who are not immersed in the book world as I am. However, I feel it is important to explain the necessity of independent bookstores and to try continuously to explain in the hopes that more people will support the independent bookstore in their neighborhood.

First off is the very general explanation for supporting independent businesses locally. Chain stores are not a good way to create a middle-class within a neighborhood because the majority of the money is sent to the headquarters. Even while such stores might employ local people, the profits will not be spent by locally. The employees will earn the salary, and given that we are talking about retail stores, most of these employees will not be earning a great deal whereas the larger profits will be given to headquarters and corporate employees who live in a different region of the country. However, if one spends money at a local store, the profit goes directly to someone who lives in that city or town and who will be spending the dollars within the community. Therefore, the cash flow remains within the community and helps to make a more stable middle class and one that is not based too much on flow in and flow out from other regions.

The second reason is how you, the reader, benefits from the expertise of people who live and breathe books for a living. When I started working in publishing, I started actively questioning all my friends and acquaintances on how they bought books, what compelled them to pick up a book in a bookstore and buy it. What surprised me is how many of them answered that the biggest problem they faced was that they didn't know what to buy. Generally, these were friends who are not writers, who read on a moderate basis, have subscription to the New Yorker, but do not actively follow the book reviews. They might happen upon a book review occasionally, but they do not see it as part of their weekend morning to peruse the book review to see what book might interest them.

For such readers, independent bookstores are a gift. There, the bookstore staff actively follows book reviews, knows what other people in the industry has recommended, but also, crucially, knows the local taste. On top of all that, they will often spend the time to talk with customers and make recommendations specifically based on your taste in books and what type of book you are looking to read at that exact moment. I recently watched a bookseller in action as I had inadvertently visited him at the busiest part of the day. He would be talking with me at the counter when a customer would come up and ask for a recommendation. He would give some ideas of his favorite books at that moment, ask the customer what she kind of book she was reading, and then start walking her towards different categories to show her a few books that might suit her. She ended up with two books that interested her.

For a serious bookreader, the need for independent bookstores is different. Possibly the last thing I need is more books. I have a bookshelf filled with double rows of books, books in stacks on top of the bookshelf, and stacks of books on the floor. Yet, books are an addiction, and I need to constantly replenish. If I know exactly which book I want, it would be easy. But like the casual reader, I want to be informed, but also excited, stimulated, and thrilled by falling in love for a new book. Here, independent bookstores that I know and trust serve as my drug dealers. We have a relationships. I might not even talk with a bookseller while I am there. Instead, I will spend several hours browsing, and end up with three books. I take this addiction very seriously; it is central to my very existence. When a bookstore that I rely on for such browsing hours close down, it is a catastrophe in my life. When Posman on University Place closed down, I was quite upset and talked about it for a year in confusion and sorrow. When Gotham closed down, not only was it upsetting on a personal level as I knew a number of the staff, but also upsetting as a lose of a known space. Each independent bookstore is distinct in how they choose to lay out the space, what kind of shelves they use, and the final atmosphere they achieve, from the small and cozy, to the large and spacious, from cluttered to neat, from the labyrinthine to rows of symmetrical shelves. Often I end up at a different bookstore based not only on my knowledge of the kind of books they are likely to stock, but also on what kind of space in which I want to spend my hours at that given moment. Each is an atmosphere that interacts with my personal needs. It is a dynamic that no chain nor online retailer can achieve.

Finally, I'd also like to say that for someone working in an independent publishing house as I do, independent booksellers are our front row of defense. They are the ones who promote our books, who take on risks to buy our books and sell it. In much the same ways that my company takes on a risk to acquire a manuscript by an unknown author and publish it, independent bookstores will take on the risk to promote an unknown author as long as they like the book. This is the kind of mentality that has made the book industry such a thrilling industry, and it is one that is in danger of fading when people start thinking that the industry should be about profit. Everyone in the industry needs to make their business work and to make a profit. Last thing I want to see is a business fail, whether it's a publishing house or a bookstore. However, I also think the central mission of our works are books. In saying that, I believe that we should all be dedicated to making the best books work.

I started off this post talking about my visits with booksellers here. I had previously worked as a sales rep, meaning that I once sold books to independent bookstores for a living. However, I found out that spending time socially with booksellers is a different phenomenon. A selling session is always rife with the certain tension needed to banter and to go back and forth focused on the actual selling. In a social setting, we are also freed of such business. Instead, we are people in the same business who also love books. And it turns out that booksellers are almost natural raconteurs, an often unseen and rare species of the extroverted bookworm. They talk for hours about their favorite books, their moments in the bookstore, the industry, and everything else on the planet. They happen to be among the best informed citizens of the world, having read about everything there is to read about and then discussing these things with their customers. They are a delight, real individuals and vocal citizens.

So, if you have finished reading this post and stayed with me throughout this lengthy push for one of my favorite things in my industry, please go to an independent bookstore and buy some books.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Hi! Not sure how I stumbled upon your blog, but when I saw this post, I had to comment. I work with independent bookstores almost every day as a publisher's sales rep, and you hit it right on the money. Booksellers, especially the ones that work on the floor day after day, are some of the smartest and best-informed people I have ever met.

In addition, another benefit to shopping at a locally-owned bookstore is that every single book in the store is hand-selected by someone who lives and works in the community. I don't think that is something that most book buyers realize. This local selection process means that a store does not have to have an overwhelmingly large selection of books -- the bookseller has done the "editing" on behalf of the customers that they know and speak with every day.

So many times I will be talking about a book that is not yet published and a bookseller will say, "Oh, I have to buy this for Maggie Jones." With over 400,000 books published each year, this "editing" is important. Couple that with the stores' ability to get any book in print, normally in the next day or two, and the locally owned independent bookseller is of great value to a community.

Ann