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Literary Blog

Farewell to Independent Bookstores

Fascinating discussion of independent bookstores yesterday at Instapundit. Glenn Reynolds started things off by linking to a Slate article by Farhad Manjoo, which characterized independent booksellers as “the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find.”

Reynolds’s readers piled on, describing indies as “unwelcoming” and “elitist,” with an inventory of books that is “ridiculously one-dimensional.” Amen to all that. When American fiction went through its Great Schism in the early Eighties, dividing into a “literary” rite and a “genre” rite, bookstores followed suit. The large chains with franchise stores in shopping malls (Waldenbooks, B. Dalton) scooped up the largest market share; the hoi polloi shopped there for the books they had heard about, the books everyone was reading — including the fiction that still believed in Story.

The indies went upscale. By the time Borders was acquired by Kmart and merged with Waldenbooks in 1992, the concept of the bookstore had been changed forever. The new bookstore, modeled upon famous indies like the Gotham Book Mart, City Lights in San Francisco, and Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, were more like literary salons than retail businesses. They were identified with local writers and literary schools; they hosted readings; they recommended this book, not that one (definitely not that one); they supported causes (say hello to Banned Book Week). They were the storefront headquarters of the literary left.

Perhaps most tellingly, they encouraged their customers to loiter. They offered comfortable reading chairs and library desks. You were urged to take a stack of books to a corner and stay awhile. You were even welcome to sit down with a cup of coffee (and eventually the bookstores opened their own coffee shops on the premises). The books were confined to the walls: large open spaces were given over to those who wished total immersion in the pseudo-literary experience. (Before long, teenagers had commandeered the library tables for after-school get-togethers, where they could gossip and text instead of studying and no adults would hush them or chase them away.)

I keep trying to imagine a hardware store with a floor plan (and a customer base) like an independent bookseller — middle-aged men, sprawled in chairs, intermittently gunning the impact driver; talkative groups of day laborers crowded around a table saw, slurping energy drinks and hoping that no one hires them. Clerks sniff haughtily if a customer asks for Black & Decker. In the evening, a soulful drywall man expounds, in a dramatic voice, his emotional experiences with joint compound and black silicon carbide paper.

Maybe the independent bookstores have a lousy business model? Maybe that is what’s killing them — that and the inevitable crash of the high-end literary market. Not Amazon. The only advantage that Amazon really enjoys is an understanding of the book market, which is still strong when customers can be served efficiently (and with a minimum of self-congratulation on the part of sellers).

Although some of my happiest memories are of bookstores, where I have passed long hours of my life, I haven’t “browsed” in a new bookstore for several years now. The only time I linger, losing an entire afternoon to fruitless searches and unexpected discoveries, is in a used bookstore. Despite feeling sorry for the employees who lost their jobs, I wasn’t particularly upset to see Borders go bankrupt, and I am not saddened by the plight of the independent booksellers. They bet everything upon the literary elite, and the shooter has crapped out.


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