Chain bookstores are the book lover's best friend.
June 25, 2001 7:49 PM Subscribe
posted by icathing at 8:15 PM on June 25, 2001
In my experience, I've always felt uncomfortable shopping in small bookstores. Except for one place (which was the best book buying experience I've ever had, but was, unfortunately, while I was on vacation), the sales people always gave me the impressions that, at best, I was in their way, at worst, was an idiot. Both may be true, but running any type of store like that is hardly something to celebrate.
Small operations of any kind seem to me to be always operated by people who have "always wanted to have an X store". Their essential motivation is generally themselves ("I love books and I want others to love the books I love"). Chains, however, are purely motivated by sales. As any good retailer knows, a happy customer is a repeat customer is a profitable customer. Since chains are more interested in having me buy more books, while independents are more interested in selling the books they want to sell, odds are that the chains will provide the better book buying experience. Multiply that my millions of people with varying tastes, and you have 189 feet of biography, 196 feet of philosophy, 92 feet of military history, 168 feet of poetry, and 165 feet of books and materials on foreign-language instruction, in Albanian, Amharic, Bengali, Urdu, Welsh, and Yoruba, among others.
History may be written by the victor, but nostalgia is the last solace of the loser.
posted by dchase at 8:18 PM on June 25, 2001
It also often doesn't/didn't exist. No mom & pops for me when I was a kid. Until the first cheesy little chain bookstores opened up in our local mall, we had nothing. And even then the selection sucked until they finally opened a real Border's a few years ago.
posted by aaron at 8:32 PM on June 25, 2001
I lived in Denver most of my life and must say The Tattered Cover is leaps and bounds better than any superstore chain. People drive from hundreds of miles around to take in the store's own ambiance. It's perhaps the only thing I miss about Denver. The article's point is well taken though.
I remember newspaper articles of the past where visitors from New York or Boston would bitch that even they didn't have store quite as good as Denver's four storey bookstore, the Tattered Cover.
posted by crasspastor at 8:34 PM on June 25, 2001
I mean, really. How many times are you ging to re-read that book? Libraries rock!
posted by acridrabbit at 8:35 PM on June 25, 2001
posted by crasspastor at 8:37 PM on June 25, 2001
posted by acridrabbit at 8:37 PM on June 25, 2001
I have the same problem with libraries: I read science fiction and fantasy books (yes, hello... geek!), and libraries usually don't get the more obscure titles. And I DO reread. Often. Used bookstores are my best friend these days.
posted by fujikodunc at 8:52 PM on June 25, 2001
A) a paperback exchange run by a guy whose nickname is "Dirty," and you don't know if it's because he's an unshaven R. Crumb wannabee or a perv or both , and
B) The Religious Supply Company, which has a lot of Bibles, books about the Bible, and children's books based on the Bible
Into this wilderness came our first crappy mall bookstore, B. Daltons, and I tell you, it was like being dropped into the Library of Alexandria. (Without the part about everything being in Greek.) Now when I go back to that town I stop at the B & N, which brings an extraordinary selection of books & periodicals to the plains. Viva the chains.
Dirty's paperback exchange is still there, too.
posted by lileks at 9:04 PM on June 25, 2001
Based on the little walkthrough the little animated GIF on the front of Tattered Cover's home page, the same can be said about Powells in Portland. I'm looking forward to spending the better part of a day just walking around the store when I go visit some friends. (Portland is 300 miles away from where I live, so I'll be driving that far, in part, to see visit a bookstore, for the second time).
posted by youthbc1 at 9:04 PM on June 25, 2001
posted by aaron at 9:13 PM on June 25, 2001
What I like about the independent stores is the fact that they aren't limited to certain publishing companies, like the larger chains are. You can get the best-sellers as well as the harder-to-find books. And usually, these types of stores are more fun to just browse through than the chains, because you come across some weird, interesting stuff.
posted by Espoo2 at 9:22 PM on June 25, 2001
posted by Ned at 9:22 PM on June 25, 2001
Prices, ambiance, corporate muscle, and consolidation are different matters altogether, but you have to keep in mind that we're talking about something different here. The article was concerned with debunking the claim that chains hurt the intellectual institution of books, not the physical entities of independent bookstores themselves. Sure, Mom'n'Pops has a beautiful ambience, but Borders was never trying to replace that. After all, your local coffee shop is more pleasant than Starbucks, but can you really say that the coffee is worse?
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:28 PM on June 25, 2001
Based on my experience in the UK, I'd say that there the chains have not been a bad thing. In Vancouver though, Chapters have pretty much wiped out all of the opposition. There's a few tiny independents and that's it. Chapters aren't awful - they're actually pretty good shops, but the chain is according to some reports in big trouble and the user experience has definitely taken a turn for the worse recently.
Of course, it's not like Borders & B&N can come north of the border to our rescue. Oh... I think I may have just answered my own question.
posted by pascal at 9:38 PM on June 25, 2001
posted by judith at 9:44 PM on June 25, 2001
Bringing a really good selection of books to places that previously lacked decent bookstores is certainly a good thing--I can't think what I'd do without easy access to good books. And the shelf space available in the big chains allows for a breadth that just isn't possible in the smaller independents. In my area, none of the independent bookstores have remotely decent computer sections--there just isn't enough demand to make it worthwhile--while the local Border's has a great selection (quality and quantity both) of programming books.
On the other hand, independents tend to express their owners' personalities in their selections, and if you find the right one, this can be a very good thing. They're also more able to provide for the particular tastes of the local community--again, this is very good, if you live in the right place. More generally, chains, since their buying is centralized and has to appeal to a wide audience, can only get so good, so they can never match the very best independent bookstores.
Ultimately, I'm quite happy to let chains and independents coexist. I am worried, though, by the fact that the chains can sometimes compete strongly enough on the basis of price alone (making special deals with publishers, running a store at a loss until the competition in the area is out of business) to threaten even higher quality independent bookstores. Any really large business ultimately exists solely to make money, and will engage in any anti-competetive practices they can get away with. This doesn't mean they can't still be useful, but they should be kept in check.
posted by moss at 9:54 PM on June 25, 2001
It may be a tacky, unpleasant or a just plain uncool reality, but some services are better handled by big unhip chains.
I've bought books I normally wouldn't have, simply because I could mull it over with an espresso before committing to the checkout.
I think the whole Mom & Pop thing is a big myth, particularly with the ability to find the more out there stuff fairly easily on the internet. Here in Florida, Mom & Pop amounts to not finding William Burroughs, because he's queer, or an eater of babies, or whatever it is that aging religious zealots seem to think he is.
posted by dong_resin at 10:00 PM on June 25, 2001
posted by poseur at 10:11 PM on June 25, 2001
to sum up the big block above, large chain stores are built for the burbs, not cities.
posted by elle at 10:25 PM on June 25, 2001
Hey, where the cripplecrabcrunch is Jessamyn in this thread?
posted by roboto at 10:46 PM on June 25, 2001
I'm not exactly in a rush to go back there, though I probably will sometime. I've spent hardly any time in Portland and I want to explore a bit...
posted by kindall at 10:56 PM on June 25, 2001
A few months back, I went into an indie store near me (sorry, can't recall the name). It's supposed to be a "community store" and really pushes the cultural enrichment angle of reading. They have employee picks displayed with hand-written index cards praising the books. It had a nice feel. So I went to the Philosophy section. They didn't have a single classical philosophy text. They had lots of books about philosophy (Philosophy for Dummies, etc.), but none of the primary works. Seriously... no Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and sure as hell no Kirkegaard.
I lost what little faith I had in indie stores after that. Borders may have less soul, but they have lots of books I want to read.
posted by jewishbuddha at 12:20 AM on June 26, 2001
elle's point is really valid: that the chain stores are suburban middlebrow: the Borders in Hartford, for instance, has rows and rows of self-help books and new age gubbins, and a small shelf of philosophy texts. Which is pretty grating. So while I'll always browse the chain stores, I'll walk away with a magazine rather than a book, more often than not.
Anyway, I'll speak up for Blackwells in Oxford, which is to independent bookshops what Britney is to independent music. Even though the staff in the second-hand department are perhaps the rudest bunch of fuckers you'll ever be unfortunate to meet.
posted by holgate at 3:20 AM on June 26, 2001
posted by m.polo at 4:57 AM on June 26, 2001
1.knowledgeable staff who can answer questions and can afford to stay at their jobs after they graduate from college
2.a "good fit" if you have fringe interests
3. no sweetheart deals with major publishers meaning that all books get an equal chance to be displayed and supported
4. author readings and other community events that help support reading as a hobby, not just as a profit-making scheme. Maybe even getting some authors to speak who DON'T have a new book coming out...? Or who have controversial opinions?
5. most importantly, to me: giving your cash to the people in your community, not to large corporations who use it to consolidate wealth in the upper eschelons of businessfolk. What's good for stockholders of megachains is often what's good for customers, but if it isn't, see how quickly the chains decide that service is a luxury, not a right. Amazon.com anyone?
As with anything, success is defined based on the metrics that you choose. If you want the book in stock when you're at the store, or of you want a latte stand within 50 feet of the periodicals, or if you don't have offbeat tastes, then the chains may be fine for you. I like places with cats and dust and used books that were printed before I was born. Or community events with local authors. And i don't mind if I have to special order something -- there is always the library after all. Ergo, the chains are not fine for me, and in Seattle we've seen many indie stores going out of business because they can't keep up with Borders/B&N and that's a shame, to me.
posted by jessamyn at 5:35 AM on June 26, 2001
The nice thing about indie bookstores, though, is that they are run by people who love them, and patronized by the same folk. I'd be willing to venture that many indie bookstores still have the same customers they did ten years ago.
posted by tweebiscuit at 6:41 AM on June 26, 2001
The little used book store downtown is cute. They don't have much, but they had a Spike Milligan book once (and I think they have a cat). But they're not really competing with Barnes and Noble. You couldn't find every book written by Richard Rorty there. Our larger, more independent bookstore is just like Barnes and Noble with more knick-knacks, a big cafe, and a very bad philosophy selection. I guess they've had local authors there, but having been dragged to see Dan Gerber by my mom, I don't know if I really need my culture to be local.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:19 AM on June 26, 2001
The consolidation of the publishing industry, along with the rest of the media businesses, is probably a greater threat than the success of the big chain bookstores.
I really don't care who I buy my books from as long as I can get the books I want to read, but when the catalogs of the major publishers get smaller and more homogenous with every passing year, then I am concerned.
posted by briank at 7:35 AM on June 26, 2001
I get the impression that some people are posting before they've read the entire article. If you disagree with the article, fine, but ignoring its arguments hinders credibility.
posted by NortonDC at 7:57 AM on June 26, 2001
In many cases the chains targeted neighborhoods that already had good independents, and many of these fell by the wayside during the first years of the superstore invasion; membership in the American Booksellers Association dropped from a high of about 5,000 in the mid-1990s to a low of about 3,000 in the middle of last year.
Having a Border's arrive in my suburban hometown was wonderful, as the existing options were B. Dalton's, Waldenbooks, and a tiny independent bookstore with a bad selection. But in cities with good bookstores -- the Bostons and Seattles and Chicagos of the world, and many smaller cities too -- I'm not sure that you can say that the arrival of the big box bookstores is a positive.
And given the marketing might that Borders and Barnes and Noble have, I'm not sure that it's an open-and-shut case that the chains will remain a positive development for midlist books and edgier fare, although concerns that have been raised so far are largely overblown, I think.
posted by snarkout at 8:46 AM on June 26, 2001
and yeah, I do live in the city -- but I don't think anyone is complaining about chain bookstores moving in where there were no bookstores before.
posted by rabi at 9:14 AM on June 26, 2001
Unprovable assertion. The mere fact that an independent bookstore exists does not automatically mean that it is "good." Many of those independent bookstores probably sucked.
and many of these fell by the wayside during the first years of the superstore invasion; membership in the American Booksellers Association dropped from a high of about 5,000 in the mid-1990s to a low of about 3,000 in the middle of last year.
These numbers are provided with no breakdown of the reasons the owners of those bookstores gave for closing down. (For all we know, 2,000 independent bookstores may have simply decided to give up their membership in the ABA. Maybe the ABA raised their yearly dues through the roof at some point in the late 1990s? No way for us to tell.) As such, they're meaningless.
Besides, in the end, the fact remains that no giant bookstore chain can force people to shop at their stores. The consumers are making their own choice to patronize chain bookstores over the independents. The indies will have to either adapt or die.
posted by aaron at 10:46 AM on June 26, 2001
NortonDC: I have read the article more closely. Here is what I disagree with "The chains also have a vastly wider choice of books; the titles may not be lovingly handpicked or personally sold, but they're there.... there is a downside to hand-picking and personal sales: one may be subject to the whims, biases, and pretensions of an opinionated owner—or, for that matter, to the ministrations of supercilious sales clerks who, no matter how little they know .... still manage to act patronizing. "
"Wider" in this case is simply a function of quantity. My specific issue is that I prefer, personally, the whims, biases, and pretensions that indie bookstores have. Allen seems to have a specific issue with the "snobiness" of smaller stores which I just think is shorthand for smaller stores not catering to his every whim. Stocking ten thousand titles just pushes the five hundred you don't stock further underground if you maintain the illusion that you have everything. And if you run a thousand stores, stocking the same 10,000 titles, this is further enforced. The argument may go that market forces -- this is a capitalist society as Allen so succinctly states, though he left out the "go back to Russia, pinko" part -- will select for these 10,000 titles, but I'm not buying it. Why are the indie bookstores all different and the big box stores all the same? The larger, more radical part of my argument is that the big box stores create culture by creating a subset of acceptable reading material and labelling it "almost everything," just like NPR.
posted by jessamyn at 10:56 AM on June 26, 2001
Still, I've been to the Border's branches on three Hawaiian islands, and they were definitely worth the visit. I was able to find the *exact* book I was looking for each time. I was also amazed at how each branch had an extremely comprehensive selection of local/Hawaiian music, with a good percentage of the listening stations given over to local artists. Additionally, Border's was the best place to find books on Hawaiian cooking, culture, language, customs, music, and so forth.
posted by bjennings at 11:06 AM on June 26, 2001
posted by webmutant at 11:28 AM on June 26, 2001
Talking about independent stores, Leonard Riggio, CEO of Barnes & Noble, said "we're actually rooting for them." To most independents, it sounded like a pig rooting for truffles.
-- from Books on the Brink: Latest Mergers Imperil Diversity in Books
posted by webmutant at 11:33 AM on June 26, 2001
No, mere quantity would be stocking a greater number of copies of fewer titles. So far, no one has accused the big chains of this.
As far as preferring pretension, knock yourself out. I shop at bookstores to buy books, not to have my ego fed. Are you really saying that the big chains have superior customer service that caters to a customer's every whim? And are you calling that a weakness of big chains?
How do the chains push an illusion of having everything? My experience has been that they will show you exactly what they do and do not have, frequently via direct access into their inventory system, with help on hand to cheerfully order whatever they lack. Every book store, big or small, I've ever been in has been happy to order books for me, so in this aspect the difference lies only in what can be found on hand without prior notice. The big stores win on this point.
The article's "patronizing" criticism is its weakest part. Debunking what the author considers to be the myth of superior knowledge held by small store clerks may have validity, but portraying all small store clerks as patronizing does not. More reasonable is the assertion that the reputation comes from the small store clerks' closer proximity to the owner compared to that of the large store clerks'.
Also, I'd be careful applying the term "big box" to these book stores. I believe that refers specifically to very large general merchandise retailers such as Target or Wal-Mart.
webmutant: I was going to quote a large section from the article directly addressing the midlist concerns and showing that sales have increased in this strata, but rather than waste the time of everyone that did read the article before commenting, I ask you to do the same. Midlist concerns are addressed almost exactly half way through the article.
posted by NortonDC at 11:57 AM on June 26, 2001
Here's the Author's Guild report itself as mentioned by Allen in PDF format. Conclusion #2 of the report:
The main problem for midlist books is market share. Midlist book sales have declined as a percentage of total sales and, over the last ten years, in absolute numbers as well. Chains, superstores, and Internet booksellers have made an enormous range of midlist titles available, but without heavy marketing support, these books get lost. Attention in the chains and superstores often comes at a high price, and publishers are willing to pay it usually only in the case of obviously commercial books.
While the Authors' Guild Report says that this problem is not as severe as is often claimed, the author of the report cites it as a growing concern, especially as the publishing industry undergoes conglomeration.
posted by briank at 12:14 PM on June 26, 2001
Certainly, Aaron -- I'm not prepared to back up the articles claims, nor am I prepared to dispute them. I was simply responding to Norton's question. And as you'll note from the remainder of my post, I felt that the independent bookstore in my hometown growing up was unimpressive.
Also, I'd be careful applying the term "big box" to these book stores. I believe that refers specifically to very large general merchandise retailers such as Target or Wal-Mart.
Not according to this page, although the term "category killer" might be more accurate.
I don't know if Jessamyn will agree with me, but I see the independent bookstores that are surviving as falling into two camps: those large bookstores (Powell's, Moe's, etc.) that are able to compete with the category killers in terms of variety and those smaller bookstores that find a niche (Jessamyn's own Left Bank being an example of this; gay and lesbian bookstores and mystery bookstores also spring to mind).
posted by snarkout at 12:32 PM on June 26, 2001
posted by ZachsMind at 12:23 AM on June 28, 2001
posted by NortonDC at 4:04 AM on June 28, 2001
Though I've been to Tattered Cover and liked its selection, it was very busy and not a relaxing place to browse. I have bought from Powells online, and they're useful but more expensive (for used books, I'm on a budget) than half.com, and the feedback system ensures better quality than retailers can manage--so far.
Of course, there's no replacing the experience of browsing books you haven't heard of in a relaxed, informed environment. When I lived in Boulder, Boulder Books was a nice place to hang, and had a fine cafe next door. And I got to see Terrence McKenna there on his True Hallucinations tour.
posted by aflakete at 12:15 AM on July 1, 2001
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posted by ZachsMind at 8:08 PM on June 25, 2001