Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Corporate vs. Independent Bookstores: A Comfortable Chair

Loafers at Barnes & Noble

Stuart Walton, a blogger for the Guardian, has launched an attack on corporate bookstores on account of the INTERIOR DECORATION. He reviles the comfortable chairs at Borders and Waterstones and disdains the non-book-buying clientele who squat in them. Book buyers like himself never get the comfortable chairs, he says. And as if this argument weren’t strange enough, he claims that the coffee smells bad and splashes the books.

Though he prefers independent bookstores, he doesn’t defend hand-selling of small-press books or other traditional practices of the independents. No, that's not why he likes them. He claims he misses the cold independent bookstore clerks who don't look up from their books when you come in.

So that has me thinking.

Oh dear.

The comfortable chair is not an issue for me. It is true that many students and be-black-clothed types with laptops claim those cozy chairs or occupy the tables at the coffeehouse. It adds to the ambiance, I would have thought if I thought about it at all, because it gives you a feeling that readers are everywhere (even the laptop users SEEM to be reading). And if the employee who thought I was a homeless person is right, people hang out there all day. “You can sit here as long as you want.” The non-consumer inhabitants don't bother the clerks. They like to get people in there and then let the books work their magic.

Now this is not the case at the independent bookstores. At one cranky lady's bookstore, I have been followed suspiciously as if I were about to commit grand larceny. Yes, one employee seemed to expect me to load the entire small M-Z fiction shelves into my bag; why I cannot tell you. I blame it on my shabby denim bicycling outfit and helmet. (Oh, and the sweat.) The last time I was there I voluntarily left my bag behind the desk so I could comfortably peruse the books. This is enabling them: I should have hung onto my bag.

AS FOR THE COFFEE THING: Coffee is a '90s innovation, both for bookstores and libraries. I never go to a Barnes & Noble, Borders, or public library without buying coffee. Who can resist? I even tend to drink coffee when I’m buying at AMAZON or ABE’S BOOKS. But because the coffee cups in public stores have LIDS, I am unaware of ever having splashed a book. On the other hand, I am not one to lounge in comfortable chairs and spill my coffee. I browse standing up, occasionally sipping from my cup, and figure out what I need to buy.

The interior decoration is never great. B&N has a kind of green and wood thing going for it. The green bags match the decor. Perhaps Borders is more reddish. The comfortable chairs are a little TOO plush for reading. They swallow you up.

I love independent USED bookstores, but if STUART WALTON had to put up with my independent NEW store - and he does sound like the kind of book-obsessed character they foil - he'd never leave the house.


Ellen said...

I don't get it either. It's been so long since I've been to a used or independent bookstore -- more than a year and one half ago the one left in Alexandria close -- but I have never left myself watched or uncomfortable in them in the US. In Europe yes, just the experience you suggest is there. Books are not to be browsed at all in Italy! Small shops selling women's clothes, yes.

But by the same token, I used to like Borders and Company. If I've stopped it's that I buy so much on line and also (probably the result of people like me not buying) when I've gone to Borders and Company (other bookstores), I've found they have acres of coffee table books, filled with a lot of trash upfront, and in the back DVDs.

Once upon a time I used to meet a friend or so in one of these and have happy memories. Not that you can't find good books to the back and in the traditional sections where the books are in alphabetical order.

I daresay the man is a snob and has some agenda having to do with the situation in the UK and Waterstones which I'm missing.


Frisbee said...

I don't buy as much in physical bookstores as I used to, either. Online has changed the way we shop.

It was the strangest blog I ever read: an attack on the comfortable chair! But perhaps he was trying to find a new way to defend independents.

Alan said...

"A Community's Bricks and Mortar: Karibu" Read it at http://alanwking.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/a-communitys-bricks-and-mortar-karibu/

Frisbee said...

Thank you for the fascinating article!

FrisbeeFun said...

what will the new ipad mean to your book buying habits?

Frisbee said...

Nothing to me, because I'm still on the Sony Reader!