Thursday, July 09, 2009

Independent Bookstores - for Better or Worse

In Coast to Coast, a charming memoir about growing up in New York and Hollywood, Nora Johnson describes the book-buying habits of her father, Nunnally Johnson, the famous writer, producer, and director.

"At Martindale’s bookstore on Little Santa Monica, there was a ritual. Salesladies greeted him, asking if they could help. Well, he wanted so-and-so...did they have any ideas? With seeming carelessness they produced their favorite new novels. He listened carefully to what they had to say. A shrug from Miss. W., a little moue from Mrs. S., and the book might go back on the table or the shelf. But a nod, a couple of meaningful taps, sent it on its way. We always left with an armload and within an hour he’d be home in his corner armchair cracking the first glossy cover, a scotch and ice on the table next to him, a new pack of Old Golds.”

Bookselling has changed distinctly since then. As the indies of our youth have gone under, we have cursed the corporate pirates like Amazon and Alibris, but secretly shop there for specific titles. I occasionally pop into the tiny local independent bookstore, but it has some problems: (1) it seldom has what I need, (2) out of guilt I purchase books I’ll never read, and (3) I have to deal with a snotty attitude that bubbles out of comic-book boutique-y clerks’ heads: “I’d rather not wait on someone with a bike helmet.”

Some have great experiences at independent bookstores. Matt Cheney wrote in Conversational Reading on Feb. 24, 2009:

"When I know exactly what book I want, ...I just buy it on Amazon. Bookstores are where I go to spend an enjoyable hour and make serendipitous discoveries. And, yes, browsing is very much an addictive experience that bookstores can and should build on. Whenever I pass by a bookstore, I feel the pull. Despite everything Jeff Bezos has done to replicate this in his bookstore, I'm not drawn to browse Amazon in the same way."

Elizabeth Gettleman in Mother Jones in the article “What’s Wrong with Independent Bookstores?”(April 6, 2009) wrote:

“So we recently lost our local bookstore. MoJo really tried to support Stacey's on Market St, our research team went there before Amazon, we bought lots of gift certificates, we are sad to see them go. Well, mostly. I know this is sacrilege, but I actually thought the store was frustrating and found it a struggle to shop there. And Stacey's isn't the only guilty party.“

Let me say that I support some of the larger stores. Mager & Quinn in Minneapolis has an unusual selection. (I have found many used and out-of-print books here). I love The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City. Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe in Washington, D.C., has a sophisticated atmosphere. My best indie experience: I loved living above a bookstore in grad school: rushing downstairs to buy Queen Lucia or a New York Times.

The mysterious, reclusive, brilliant bookstore owner used to serve as the middle man between you and the publisher. He/she changed your life by putting Catcher on the Rye or Anthony Trollope on the shelf. He/she preserved the classics.

But those days have changed - for better or worse...etc.


Ellen said...

I know what you mean about feeling guilty about bookstores. When I've gone into one of the few left, I'm disappointed. They seem not to have any books, or not half enough. They are probably really smaller than they used to be, especially the used bookstores ones which I used to love to go to.

I would buy what was there, read what was there. Make do. No more. And at least in my area, the bookstore which was once a meeting place is gone too. There was one at the bottom of the main street of Olde Towne and it finally went out of business after a long slow decline, where there were less and less books there.

They just can't compete with the choice on the Net -- plus with friends on the Net I learn about new ones I'd never have heard of before.

But I know something vital or precious has been lost too.

Thanks for the comment on WWTTA which I'll respond to over there,

Mad Housewife said...

Yes, many were bigger. I hadn't thought about that, but you're right. I still find gems at the used bookstores, but the selection at the new bookstores have shrunk. Yes, independent bookstores have closed all over. A bookstore co-founded by Jane Smiley (who several years ago moved to CAlif.) closed a few years ago. We were stunned. It's not that we had been there very often, but it seemed like a town center. People were in there talking about Edwards and Dean, drinking the free coffee, and buying books. So what happened I don't know...