The Death of Reading
April 27, 2004 10:08 AM   Subscribe

Shortly after learning of the closing of Avenue Victor Hugo Books in Boston, a fire destroys Spartacus books in my former haunt Vancouver. Although obviously not related, the demise of these two institutions is sad, though Spartacus is trying to carry on through a series of fundraisers this summer. Good photos of AVH and Twelve Reasons for the death of small and independent bookstores.
posted by grimley (35 comments total)
I thought that the change of location, a few doors down the street, had changed things for the better somehow, helped the store stay in business.
this sucks.
it's so sad -- I remember spending entire afternoons there, one of my favorites bookshops in the US. I have AVH books all over my shelves. the Barnes&Noble-ization of the American book world is really bad for quality, used bookshops like this.
I think city governments should have the balls to take care of money-losing landmarks like Victor Hugo. there are enough Abercrombie stores around (see Harvard Sq), and not enough Victor Hugos

btw, Donna Tartt worked at Avenue Victor Hugo once upon a time
posted by matteo at 10:18 AM on April 27, 2004

I always found Avenue Victor Hugo to be confusing and very expensive for a used bookstore when I lived in Boston. Paying those Newbury Street rents probably had something to do with it. If they posted a moralistic essay like that, it says something about their general attitude. Anyway, most of the items on the list seems to be a lot more about why people aren't reading books at all than why independent stores aren't doing well - that is, if all of those things were true, the chains wouldn't be staying in business either.
posted by transona5 at 10:23 AM on April 27, 2004

second link: Sorry. I can't seem to find that story.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:24 AM on April 27, 2004

I'll miss Avenue Victor Hugo, but I'm surprised it lasted this long-- the Back Bay is now a terrible place for something as space-dependent as AVH. I rarely bought books there because, owing to their overhead in rent, the prices were ludicrous for used books.

matteo- I know a member of the family that owns the new location, and Avenue Victor Hugo was getting a big break on the rent compared to their neighbors. Still too costly for that type of product.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:24 AM on April 27, 2004

corrected link for the Spartacus fire. Of perhaps broader interest (internationally?), the building was at the heart of Vancouver's "Little Amsterdam" district of quasi-legal pot-smoking: Blunt Brothers ("a respectable joint") was also completely destroyed, and the BC Marijuana Party, right next door, was heavily damaged by water and smoke. Great quote from BCMP honcho Mark Emery in this Vancouver Sun article about the fire: "No one insures businesses with the name Marijuana in it, in my experience". Fire dept. officials called the fire, which started in a dumpster at 6:00 on Sunday morning, "suspicious"...
posted by dinsdale at 10:25 AM on April 27, 2004

Are independent stores losing business because they don't sell food & beverages? Because there seems some easy profit selling coffee which would help the stores overhead costs.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:26 AM on April 27, 2004

The second link is broken. But I think the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the death of the independent bookstore is overdone. My local Barnes and Noble is packed from 7-10 pm every night. Because of the success of the big stores, more people (er, suburban Americans) are reading books than ever (er, than at any point in the past 30 years, which is as far as I trust my absorbed collective memory). The issues that people are interested in, such as national culture, change too fast for libraries to keep up, so people that want to ejicate themselves use the big bookstores nowadays; combine that with newsstands, Starbucks, and now WiFi, and I think its clear that the chains are conquering the industry for good reason; they provide a more useful service.
posted by gsteff at 10:31 AM on April 27, 2004

PS - I believe the headline for the Vancouver Sun article should have been "Up In Smoke"...
posted by dinsdale at 10:33 AM on April 27, 2004

Mayor -- I hear you. but don't you miss the Tasty Diner, or Starr Bookshop as well?
as a foreigner, I think that much of Boston's appeals for visitors is in places like AVHB, much more than in cookie-cutter places that, with all due respect, you could find in the California desert or, say, Nebraska.
Newbury will be much more sucky when AVHB leaves.
most foreign visitors I know, places like AVHB and Grolier's are one of main reasons why they fell in love with the city (and came back, bringing more business for the city, by the way). Boston's appeal is going to fade if she turns into Disney's New Times Square

In the cramped Grolier Poetry Bookshop, where shelves of Latin American poets spill into Brits and Scandinavians, owner Louisa Solano mourns the old Cambridge, in which John Ashbery and Robert Creeley dropped by to talk shop with Robert Bly and Frank O'Hara. She remembers when the Beats hung out at the Hayes-Bickford cafeteria - now gone - and when the Tasty diner was where Abercrombie & Fitch now stands. "You met Cambridge eccentrics there," she says sadly. "Now Cambridge lacks color."

posted by matteo at 10:34 AM on April 27, 2004

From the third link:

7. Librarians--once the guardians, who now watch over their budgets instead--for destroying books which would last centuries to find room for disks and tapes which disintegrate in a few years and require costly maintenance or replacement by equipment soon to be obsolete.

I was sad when AVH closed the first time, happy when they reopened (I rounded out my Gregory Mcdonald collection on my last visit), but now I really don't care. Number 7 above is a slap in the face and no real reason as to why small indie bookstores are closing.

There's just so much in that statement that I'm foaming at the mouth.

First, Librarians watching budgets? Well, one needs to watch ones budget if they, say, don't want to be forced to close down. And who sets most library budgets? Not librarians. It's either a local (public) or institutional (academic) thing. We have to spend the money we get as best we can in order to provide patrons with the information services they need.

Second, Librarians destroying books? Did I miss a memo? I could have sworn that most librarians had to be threatened with bodily harm in order to protect a book from being tossed. Hell, because of our budgets, we'd much rather sell off materials to small used bookstores than have a nice bonfire.

Third, Librarians spending more on disks and tapes than they did previously. Er. Disks and tapes hardly existed thirty years ago. We'd sort of have to spend the money to get them now, while our century-lasting copy of Catch-22 remains happily on the shelf. Computers and the like are services patrons want, and since our duty is (and always has been) to them, we should get them, right?

Fourth, books lasting a century or more? Sure, if they're kept away from those pesky patrons! Have you seen a library book that's 30 years old? If so, would you touch it without gloves? Also, I'd like to insert the words "microfilm" and "microfiche" here - after the Bomb it'll be cockroaches reading fiches by the radioactive light.

Finally, I fail to see how librarians trying to keep up (and largely bungling it, but that's another rant for another day) with changing times is to blame for indie shop closures. If we were to go all tech and glam like the author seems to think, wouldn't that mean that folks would have to look elsewhere, say at an indie used bookstore, for hard to find items?

(On Preview - Whee, my first MeFi whinge!)
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:04 AM on April 27, 2004

Shit. I'm really going to miss AVH.
posted by bshort at 11:10 AM on April 27, 2004

I won't speak to AVH -- I was only there once, and was turned off by the prices. But as to the general state of small and independent bookstores, the grumpy list missed a few.

13. Small and independent booksellers, for too often stocking what they happen to like instead of what sells.

14. Small and independent booksellers, for too often treating customers with a vague unfriendly suspicion rather than selling them books.

15. Small and independent booksellers, for not having the business sense to locate their high-space low-profit enterprises in areas where they can actually afford rent.

16. Small and independent booksellers, for too often choosing to have an inadequate smattering of everything in their small stores instead of concentrating on a niche or genre.

17. Small and independent booksellers, for leaving far too many of the country's people and towns underserved or flatly unserved, leading to the growth of big-box booksellers who were happy to open a store in Peoria.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:51 AM on April 27, 2004

yeah robocop, 7 is a little over the top. apologies for getting the second link messed up, and thanks to dinsdale for correcting it. I was going to mention the maryjane stuff, but it is getting so much attention that I thought mentioning Spartacus was important. For those in Boston, Lucy Parsons Center comes closest to what Spartacus is/was.
posted by grimley at 11:55 AM on April 27, 2004

matteo- I'll miss it plenty every time I walk down Newbury Street. As you said, the place was an institution and a part of this city's character.

I won't be short any used books because of this, but I'll still miss knowing that it's there.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:56 AM on April 27, 2004

We should also point out that Boston's urban renewal is as much to blame as anything. When that store started, Back Bay landlords were happy to have anything filling those fronts. Now that same land is some of the most valuable in the country.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:00 PM on April 27, 2004

See the very long thread at Making Light.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:05 PM on April 27, 2004

Mayor, imagine Brattle Book Shop ending belly-up, too.

no Barnes & Noble, with all due respect, can replace a quality second-hand and antiquarian bookstore. that's the Wal-Martization of the book market -- try finding an old gem (say, Adlai Stevenson's campaing speeches or the Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta) between the trinkets and coffee cups and dvd's at the -- admittedly nice -- Borders on School Street

ps first Hubert Selby's death, then this. bad, bad day for American culture
posted by matteo at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2004

Man, the Brattle Book Shop. ROU_Xenophobe's point 14 is especially applicable there.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:22 PM on April 27, 2004

FYI for all you Bostonians/Cambridgians, the Grolier Poetry Bookshop is also closing -- to my mind, a far greater tragedy than the closing of the Avenue Victor Hugo. The Grolier sells new books, and buying them helps out actual poets. (Though I will admit that even I, a pretty frequent patron, don't dig the way the proprietress treats her customers with such suspicion).

As for that essay, it's a piece of junk. The AVH wasn't doing anything for the book world -- it was selling *used* books for too much money. The Harvard Book Store is, to my mind, a lot more valuable, because it pushes *new,* good writing by *living* authors, and also carries the classics; for the same reason the Grolier is important. Even the Strand pushes new writing. I don't see much use for the 100% used bookstore -- but that might just be my preference.

As an aside, if you want to know why chain bookstores aren't so hot, you should visit the huge Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. It has (if I remember right) four floors -- all but one devoted to self-help, weight loss, bookmarks, calendars, "Chicken Soup for the Soul," the "Guinness Book of World Records,", etc. Meanwhile, the fiction section is tiny and the poetry almost nonexistent. It's a bookstore without good books. The same is true of Waldenbooks in the mall or in the airport -- no real books, just crap. As far as I can tell only Borders, of the big chain stores, stocks a serious collection of real literature -- often big chain stores are just *big*, but not actually a very good resource in terms of keeping good books in circulation.
posted by josh at 12:24 PM on April 27, 2004

As long as McIntyre and Moore sticks around, I think I'll be fine.
posted by bshort at 12:27 PM on April 27, 2004

The appeal of AVH was in the eclectic selection that one could browse through. They had some interesting, obscure finds. A long time ago, that part of Newbury Street was considered somewhat sketchy, and AVH was a remnant of that era. Mars Records, another remnant of that era, also went under-- another place where one could find something that you hadn't discovered before and suddenly got excited about.
posted by deanc at 12:31 PM on April 27, 2004

This chimes in with a depressing article by A.N. Wilson in yesterday's Telegraph, lamenting the disappearance of foreign literature from British bookshops:

I went into Blackwell's bookshop in Charing Cross Road the other day. I'd been recommended to read the novels of Bernhard Schlink. There they were in an English translation, but since I am learning German, I thought it would be fun to see if I could read his books in the original language. Having surveyed the wall full of books offering language courses, and an even larger section devoted to linguistics, I was unable to find any books by Schlink.

Or. come to that, books by Schiller, Goethe, Lessing, Klopstock, Herder, Heine, Rilke, Sebald, Boll or Broch. The very polite woman at the desk directed me to the "foreign literature" section, where I found that there were, in fact, no books in German on offer at all ..

Here I was, in the middle of London, a city of eight million souls, some 100,000 of whom, I believe, have German as their first language. And I was in an academic bookshop that did not contain a single book in the German language, except books teaching the language itself. The French books filled approximately one and a half shelves .. Italian literature was represented by Italo Calvino .. Spanish literature was equally poorly represented.

This is not designed as a diatribe against Blackwell's. I know that if I went to any branch of Waterstone's, however huge, I should probably find even fewer books written in a foreign language. In the supposedly highbrow new London Review Bookshop near the British Museum, there is almost no foreign-language literature, an omission that seems truly a sign of the times.

The absence of European literature from the shelves of the big London bookshops would not perhaps mean very much if there were any big retailers that catered for such "specialist" tastes. But there are only two shops that even attempt to do so, and they are not especially large.

Full article here (well worth reading, but reg req'd, and the site never seems to load properly for me).
posted by verstegan at 12:32 PM on April 27, 2004

the Grolier Poetry Bookshop is also closing

this is so bad. so bad.

Mayor -- yeah, the Brattle staff are not the proverbial barrel of laughs. maybe the WordsWorth staff are friendlier. but I'm not sure Barnes or Borders staff are generally that much friendlier (or more knowledgeable) than Brattle's, aren't they? and the point still stands -- megastores don't carry second-hand and antiquarian books
posted by matteo at 12:59 PM on April 27, 2004

And with these closing also comes the opening of a new bookstore which feels fresh. I haven't been there but from their blog, it seems they might actually enjoy having customers more than AVH or, to a lesser extent, Grolier.
posted by rodz at 1:10 PM on April 27, 2004

Josh makes a good point which is may be why the Borders near my home closed and became a Barnes & Nobles.
posted by thomcatspike at 1:31 PM on April 27, 2004

thomcatspike mentions selling food and drink - Trident, an independent bookstore on the same street as AVH, does just that and seems to be doing fine, or at least was last time I was in town.

Borders' staff may not be that much friendlier than Brattle's, but you don't have to interact with them. You don't have to leave your stuff with them when you enter the store, and you don't notice them looking over your shoulder all the time. Now, I never buy records at Borders because I like interacting with the staff at my local record store. Brattle's staff is doing something wrong if people shop there despite, not because of, the service.

What I really miss is that Brattle used to sell poster-type things that were pages from old books. I have a bunch of them framed. But the true book snob might think it's blasphemy to sell books in pieces like that.
posted by transona5 at 1:40 PM on April 27, 2004

Progress -- Barnes & Noble and Borders, backstopped by the Internet for used and obscure titles, are, collectively, the better mousetrap. I for one don't miss the suspicious glare of a bookstore proprietor wondering when I'd stop browsing her meager selection already and get out of her shop.

Our grandparents used to buy their groceries at 2,000 square foot propreitor managed general stores, and rely upon an operator to dial their local calls.

It's a shame that we've lost some creative bookpickers who can stock their shelves with idiosyncratic choices, but we've gained access to infinitely larger pool of critics and bloggers giving us the same insights, with the book only a mouse click away.
posted by MattD at 1:41 PM on April 27, 2004

I second MattD's opinion, and it reminds me of this essay by John Tynes that is a pretty good critique on the whole lionization/mythologizing of small book stores and feminization of big book chains. Tynes also makes in interesting point when he writes that "...the mythical obligation of knowledgeable, tasteful service at minimum wage is an oppressive, elitist one..."

(The first 5 paragraphs are about, and they make points that are related and interesting, but not explicitly about brick and mortar stores.)

While there are nostalgic parts of me that pine for the cozy bookstore that's half remembered, half imagined, I also think that the slimming of the herd of small bookstores is not a crisis, boutique bookstores aren't exactly they they are often made out to be.
posted by Snyder at 3:14 PM on April 27, 2004

As far as I can tell only Borders, of the big chain stores, stocks a serious collection of real literature -- often big chain stores are just *big*, but not actually a very good resource in terms of keeping good books in circulation.

Yeah, Borders beats the tar out of Barnes & Noble for selection. It's most glaring with art books, where B & N keeps like five books on the shelf, padded with spiderwebs.

I don't understand where all of this sentiment that indie bookstore owners are grumpy bastards is coming from. 'Course, the last time I had real access to independent bookstores, I also frequented independent music stores, which is a whole other galaxy of surliness.
posted by furiousthought at 3:19 PM on April 27, 2004

The same is true of Waldenbooks in the mall or in the airport -- no real books, just crap. As far as I can tell only Borders, of the big chain stores, stocks a serious collection of real literature -- often big chain stores are just *big*, but not actually a very good resource in terms of keeping good books in circulation.

Waldenbooks and Borders are actually part of the same corporation and have a lot of overlap in their buying staff. They're just aimed at very different markets. How much Thomas Bernhard do you think an airport Waldens (or an airport Borders-they exist) could sell?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 3:51 PM on April 27, 2004

Progress -- Barnes & Noble and Borders, backstopped by the Internet for used and obscure titles, are, collectively, the better mousetrap.

I disagree wholeheartedly. I don't want to buy my books from the internet. I can't browse them there, I have to wait and pay for shipping, and I have to try to get the damn packages when they show up. This adds up to an altogether worse book-buying experience in my opinion. Plus, just like online dictionaries cut out serendipity, a focused search for just one book eliminates lucky finds.

As for getting recommendations from the internet--that is a one-way channel the wrong way. I can find people who have similar taste, sure, but that in no way compensates for the individual "you might like this" attention you can get if you make friends with a clerk.

Some people like it the new way, and that's great. I just wouldn't call it progress.
posted by dame at 3:55 PM on April 27, 2004

I need a drink.

I used to live around the corner from Avenue Victor Hugo and spent whole Sundays in there. Bought tons of books, browsed in so many more. Loved that place. Damn it to hell.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:09 PM on April 27, 2004

I don't want to buy my books from the internet. I can't browse them there, I have to wait and pay for shipping, and I have to try to get the damn packages when they show up. This adds up to an altogether worse book-buying experience in my opinion.

I'd agree with you, were I not approximately two hours from the nearest first-rate bookstore. I like my local indie well enough, but for what I Actually, for what I need, the (I do my best to give the UK economy a helping hand.) Online buying strikes me as neither better nor worse, simply different: if I need a Victorian biography of John de Wycliffe, I go to AddAll; if I just want to find Random Cool Things, I either take a really long drive to Ithaca, NY or get on a plane to Chicago. EBay approximates the "randomness" of the book-hunting experience, but doesn't provide the necessary physical proximity.

Ditto on the relative quality of B&N versus Borders, although the two B&Ns near my parents have good fiction and fine arts sections. (History, on the other hand...)
posted by thomas j wise at 8:18 PM on April 27, 2004

Regarding the surliness of staff-- it's all part of the challenge, you see, whether you're in a record store or a book store. You need to prove that your knowledgability of the source material is at least within striking distance of the staff's. Then they will take you seriously and won't be so surly.

Ask to buy a Stevie Wonder record for your daughter from the local indie record store, and get ready for some orneriness.

Ok, maybe that's why they're all closing.
posted by deanc at 9:53 PM on April 27, 2004

Meh. Growing up in the 80s in Green Bay, Wisconsin we only had mall-based B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks. It sucked trying to find anything readable. True story: when my mother was purchasing a volume of Nietzche, the clerk picked it up and said, "Oh! I didn't know Ray Nitschke wrote a book!"

I, for one, welcome our new BN/Borders overlords.

What would that be? Lombardi is Dead?
posted by mimi at 9:28 AM on April 28, 2004

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