There’s an interesting article in the New York Times about the effect of online book sales on small bookstores– especially the effect of resales on authors and stores.
I admit that I have bought my fair share of new books from Amazon, or gone to a box store like Borders or Barnes and Noble. I don’t buy many used books, unlike my Dad, who loves Alibris almost as much as he loves his own kids, but I’m not an academic, either, so I’m not chasing down obscure or out of print books most of the time. And I have no doubt that this has had a real effect– I can see it in what ought to be the book mecca– Harvard Square. Now those wonderful days I spent as a kid and teenager mooching in the paperback sci-fi & fantasy aisles at as many as three stores are gone. The Harvard Coop is run by B & N, and there’s one general-interest bookstore (ONE, people) left in the square. I try to buy there as often as possible, but it really is over the river and through the woods for me, so it’s someplace I have to make a trip to get to.
But here’s the thing– and it’s something the article doesn’t address. They’re talking about good, well-run small bookstores. The ones who put care and deep thought into their selections, and who pay attention to inventory and what people come in asking for.
Even living in Boston, I sometimes have trouble finding a book that I need. The only reliable “small” bookstores, i.e., non-chains, are Booksmith and the New England Mobile Book Fair, aka King Tut’s Tomb.
Otherwise? Well, I live in a neighborhood in Boston that does have its own bookstore– except it’s a specialty bookstore, and tends to carry mostly nonfiction and fiction works with an African-American or Hispanic bent. Which is fine for learning new things, but when I need to find something specific that someone’s expressed a wish for, this isn’t the place to find it.
And the other nearby Bookstore, which I desparately want to be able to shop at because it’s a sweet little store in a “downtown” where I can buy meat from a butcher, veggies and spices from the middle east produce vendor, cheese from a specialty shop, nice tchotchkes from a nice lady in an airy, bright corner store. But the last three times I’ve gone in there, looking for non-obscure books, she hasn’t had any of them.
This last time I needed a book (and yes, shame on me for leaving Christmas shopping until the week before Christmas, but hey, crazy lady with a job, here) I deliberately didn’t order two books from amazon on the theory that both had been well-reviewed and therefore would be available in an area bookstore. Boy. I was wrong. One of the books I wanted to give as a gift was a cooking/travel book that was on everyone’s bestseller lists a year ago, and came out in paperback this summer– it was well regarded in the literary press, and was in the line of those Anthony Bourdain books that sold like gangbusters. Seemed safe to believe most sellers would carry it.
The other one, Dear American Airlines, which is both funnier than David Sedaris and more poignant and heartbreaking than Wally Lamb, has gotten good reviews in major papers, and even ended up on some “best of the year” lists. And yet, when I asked the proprietess if she had either, she gave me a look and said “never heard of them.” She looked them up in her computer, and said, “Oh, no, I’ve never carried either of them.” I found it hard to contain my surprise as to the latter book, so I said “Really? The Miles book had a very, very good review in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review.”
Okay. Look. I can understand that not everyone reads the Sunday Book Review. There are lots of better things to do with your time, really. But if you’re a bookseller? Especially one on the East Coast? Especially one in Boston, where the books on the train are still an excellent survey of real fiction and nonfiction? Well, I hope you’ll agree that my flabbergastedness (is that a word? I declare it so.) was reasonable when she answered me.
“Oh, I don’t read that.”
And that, right there, is the problem with many smaller brick and mortar bookstores. If I have time, I will go to the trouble of ordering something ahead of time to go pick up– or will plan ahead enough so I have time to go to multiple indie stores in one day. But if I go in needing something in particular, or I’m in the mood to just browse, and the seller’s one of those people who thinks it would be “fun” to own a bookstore, well, you’re just not going to have what I’m looking for or will be interested in buying if you’re only buying off the recommended list from your distributor, or whatever Oprah’s featuring this month. I have encountered this problem more times than I can count. Good books that get good reviews in major book review publications, and they don’t even have one copy– consistently, every time I go looking for a copy. It makes me sad, because I really would love that square to have a bookstore. But how could I possibly keep patronizing a bookstore whose proprietress is so clueless? It’s like banging my head against a brick and mortar store. I’ve walked out of there empty-handed too often, and me walking empty-handed out of a bookstore is like the sun not rising every day.
Maybe I’m a booksnob. But if you want me to patronize your store? Please carry at least some of the seriously-reviewed books of the year. And if I say something’s been well-reviewed in such-and-such publication, at least have the audacity to lie to me and say you’re fresh out. Then take note– and go read it. You might make me believe you did order the one or two copies your small store had room for, and I might actually come back. I know it takes time. I know it takes effort and thought. But if you’re serious about books, and serious about owning a bookstores (two different things, I know), then please, please, do it.
Instead? The BH had to buy the cook/travel book at the B & N in Harvard Square, and the Dear Amercan Airlines at the Borders downtown. And a cute little store in a cute little neighborhood lost a customer.