Indie bookstore woes, redux

This post was written by Friday blogger Annie Reid.

A kind reader points us to the sad news that another of the twin cities’ independent booksellers, Bound to Be Read, will be closing its doors (as well as those of its Albuquerque, NM sister store) this summer.

Bookninja linked the other day to this article from 1999 by David Kornhaber that asserts the now familiar lament that book superstores are changing the way Americans read, to the detriment of literary culure as a whole. It’s not just a sad local commentary on today’s economics. It’s a cultural problem for both readers and writers.

Says Kornhaber:

In the past, there were literally thousands of independent bookstores across the country, each deciding for itself which books to buy from publishers. A large number of these stores, in fact, were dedicated to selling the works of emerging writers, to taking a chance on an unknown name. Thus, there was a market for a great variety of literature.

Today, however, the landscape has changed. Three bookstore chains control three-fourths of all book sales. Each of these chains has only one or two people in charge of buying books from publishers. Instead of thousands of independent buyers looking for books, there are now only five book purchasers who determine which books are sold in the vast majority of the nation’s bookstores. Publishers who cannot sell to these five buyers are now more than ever finding themselves in financial dire straits. And thus, writers who are trying to express a vision that doesn’t appeal to these buyers are finding themselves without publishers. The rise of book superstores, in short, has threatened the literary life of our country. In a world where publishers are being forced to determine the worth of a book by the number of copies it can sell instead of its inherent merit, the outlets for authors of serious literature are dwindling. As the type of books being bought by bookstores (and thus the type of books that get published) become more and more based on mass-market appeal, literary innovation will inevitably decline.

Although I’m more hopeful about the tastes of readers than many, my own recent experiences bear this out. After college, my reading experiences were enriched my local independent bookstore in Seattle (where I lived at the time), Bailey Coy Books. The employees, all voracious readers, know what they’re talking about, and enjoy introducing customers to new writers, publishing houses, and aesthetic sensibilities.

I live in a thriving urban environment now, with not a single independent bookseller in walking distance. I realize it’s different everywhere, but at the local book superstore near me, the employees seem to avoid getting into conversations about customers about books. Most don’t know what’s interesting about books from Semiotext(e), Soft Skull or Small Beer Press. Passion is still a good enough reason for me to support local indie bookstores. It matters to me.

Maybe, though, as economic conditions change, the internet is stepping in slowly to fulfill that need. Now it’s from blogs that I get most of my information about new books, presses and authors. Not from bookstores or even the mainstream press, but from individuals with that same passion. But it doesn’t take the place of having those books right there on a table in front of you, or following an excited person through the shelves to their personal favorites.

Find a local indie bookseller here.


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