Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why I like Indie Bookstores

My pal Saudade brought this terrific article about independent bookstores by John King at the SF Chronicle to my attention. Anyone who knows me knows that for the last few years I have worked at Diesel, A Bookstore, and I have learned a lot about the business, the challenges, and the ethos that drives a lot of professional book-sellers. I was told during my interview that the owners and workers at Diesel view it as an intellectual commons--a place where thinkers-of-all types could rub shoulders with mystery novelists, environmental activists, and graphic novel aficionados. So far that has often proved true. Diesel is always interesting.

King writes of indie bookstores:

a good bookstore is like a good city block: varied and rich, with layers that bear evidence of imagination and pride. There's a tactile connection to the ephemeral world of ideas. This is merchandise, but it's not something to be worn for a season or hung up on a wall; it's something to be discussed and shared, maybe even something that will shape your thoughts and actions. There's more going on than the creation of a scene. It's the slow formation of identities, of thoughts and passions and who knows what else.

Online retail is really cutting and gouging a lot of independent retailers--bookstores especially with their crazy-high running costs. Just think: in any given bookstore there are thousands of books--and everyone of them has been bought by the store in the hopes of selling them and making just a sliver of what the book actually costs. Plus, stores have to pay for the shipping and the return of books (if they do not sell); and if a store does have to return a book, it gets less than half of the cost in credit to apply to its next order: talk about diminishing returns.

King writes well and romantically about why bookstores are important and I agree with him--but please allow a few other points:

1. Bookstores provide a physical place to browse.
A good bookstore will surprise you. I often hear from customers, "I never even knew this book existed! " and then they happily buy it for their collection. This is something not even the smartest online databases can do (hell, sometimes not even seasoned professionals can show you the things you never knew existed but were happy they did).

2. Bookstores are places of public congregation.
Say you call a friend to meet for dinner--what better place to wait then a bookstore. If it's a date, even better as a bookstore is full of potentially fabulous conversation starters. (Actually, that should get a whole line of its own: Independent Bookstores--They're great for dates!). Every time I work at Diesel I see people meeting and chatting with strangers in the store about books. Not everyone, sure, but every time I work someone will say to another something along the lines of: "That's a _______ book! I ______ it."

3. Most independent bookstores are stocked with well-read and enthusiastic professionals.
These are the people who have meetings (had one last week) on how to better listen to and chat with patrons in order to help them find the books they want. I swear, go ask a bookseller who's been doing it a few years any sort of question: "I need a story about foxes, lost dogs, spies, and romance" and they will have a book ready for you. or will be able to find one (in the case above, I'd recommend Icelander by Justin Long. You can order it from Diesel!) :)

4. Very selfish here, but another important reason why indie bookstores are important: I like them very much, and would be terribly depressed were they to disappear. I think this is true for most people--sadly though, most don't realize how much they liked something until it is gone.