Independent Bookstores as Fallen Monuments

The history of independent bookstores is littered with fallen monuments.

So begins a review of The Letters of Sylvia Beach in Bookforum. Beach was the owner of the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris during the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was friends with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Joyce. It was she who first published Ulysses.

After I had written my previous post about Borders and what its demise would mean, I came across this review in Bookforum. It seems independent bookstores have never had an easy time.

There is something inherently ephemeral about the trade, and the obstacles—indifferent publics, high rents, minuscule profit margins—are too many to list. It’s not just Amazon or the e-reader; there was always something putting the independents out of business, and whatever our sentiments, the world does not owe bookstores a living.

Sylvia Beach eked out a living, riding out and being an integral part of the literature written by an expat community of uniquely talented writers in the 20th century. She had a rough go during the Great Depression. And then the Nazis invaded France. She was put in a detention camp. After the war, she didn’t reopen her bookstore. The current store was opened by an American as an homage of sorts (it’s now been open far longer than Beach’s original). So now I’ve gone and put her memoir on hold at the library.

Today I read this post by Tayari Jones (courtesy of The Rumpus) in which she talks about attending the American Booksellers Winter Institute and her renewed need to buy books only from independent booksellers.

One woman said to me on the elevator, “I want to get your book in people’s hands.” I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t want to seem crazy.

But seriously. The indies represent resistance to the homogenization of our country. They call them “indies” because they are independent. Buying decisions are made in-house, not from some corporate entity that knows nothing about the community. You may remember my big box store horror story—I was in Arizona and I went to a big chain to sign my stock. I was told that they wouldn’t carry my book because there are not enough black people in Arizona. This decision didn’t come from the community, but from some big corporation that underestimated me—and the local citizens. The independents in Arizona carried my book because they know that book people read.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last, post/article/rant about the “need” to buy only from indie bookstores. Theirs is a precarious position. One that shows know signs of improving and stabilizing. For those of us that lived in a bookstore desert, the arrival of a Big Chain was a Godsend. For those who already had their beloved indie bookstore, the arrival of a Big Chain was a declaration of war.

One thing I do need less from bookstore employees these days, regardless of the store, is recommendations. Often I get recommendations for books via blogs and online literary sites (The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Conversational Reading, Bookslut, to name a few).

This would contradict a point I made in my previous post about liking an informed attentive staff at a bookstore. For me, my lack of available time to browse has also brought with it a lack of time to chat. It’s hard to chat with the staff when either your two-year-old is randomly pulling books off of shelves and putting them back in a way most convenient to her, or your six year-old is having a meltdown because you won’t buy him a cheap tiny wind-up toy from the bin of cheap tiny wind-up toys next to the checkout line.

I suppose that when I’m older and my kids are older, I’ll have some time to myself at a bookstore. In the meantime, the lure of shopping online continues to beckon…

Telling people to shop at indie bookstores for the sake of shopping at indie bookstores is not going to work. Indie bookstores need more than the handful of Dedicated Patrons. They need a constant stream of casual buyers, too. Though the former might love the place, without the latter the store cannot survive anymore than the original Shakespeare and Company could.


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