Slate on the death of independent bookstores

Tyler Cowen weighs in with an article titled "What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For?" and subtitled "Not much." The basic claim of the article, near as I can make it out, appears to be that we're not really losing much when we lose independent bookstores.

Despite my knee-jerk strongly negative reaction to such a claim, I was willing to consider that there might be an interesting argument behind it, so I read the article. And after reading the article, I still think there might exist an interesting argument to that effect, but Cowen sure hasn't provided one.

(More specifically, I still think it's conceivable that the death of the independent bookstore may not be disastrous to the reading public; after all, the independent movie theatre is largely gone, and though that's sad, it hasn't meant the death of independent film. Nonetheless, I remain very sad at the passing of independent bookstores, for a variety of reasons from the sentimental to the practical to the political.)

Cowen first raises my hackles by claiming that "Patronizing [independent bookstores] helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case"; it may help him think that, but literariness and offbeatitude are not my reasons for liking independent bookstores. He goes on to say, "There are similar phenomena in the world of indie music fans [...] and indie cinema[...]. In each case the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest"--a statement that blithely conflates delivery systems (bookstores, movie theatres, record stores) with the content of the art they deliver.

But what really got my goat enough to make me want to post about it is this bit:

The real change in the book market is [...] the reader's greater impatience, a symptom of our amazing literary (and televisual) plenitude. [...] It was easy to finish Tolstoy's War and Peace when there were few other books around and it was hard to find them. Today, finishing it means forgoing many other options at our fingertips.

~Yeah, I remember those days. I think they were in the 1950s, or maybe the 1920s. If I remember right, in 1925 there were a total of about ten books in the world, and Tyler Cowen kept hogging the only copy of War and Peace. I got stuck reading Don Quixote four or five times out of sheer boredom, 'cause there really wasn't any other form of entertainment in those days besides reading, either. There were basically no other options--it was read one of those ten books, or sit staring blankly into space twiddling your thumbs.~

~But these days we have so many options, and readers are so impatient, that no reader would ever read a 1500-page book like War and Peace. For example, if a modern Russian writer were to write a 1500-page debut novel, there's no possible way that it could sell out within four weeks, because modern readers would never forgo all their other options. And surely no modern reader would even consider embarking on a series that will be over 3000 pages long when it's complete, much less a series that's over 8000 pages long and counting.~

~Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Cowen!~

(Sarcasm marks courtesy of Jim Moskowitz, Samuel R. Delany, et alia.)

14 Responses to “Slate on the death of independent bookstores”

  1. jere7my

    I see he points out that some independent bookstores sell pornography. My goodness, imagine that.

  2. Catherine W

    The trick these days is finding the indipendent book store, however I’d go there because they’re likely to stock something old or unusual that the big stores won’t go near. Plus where I live, the ‘big’ bookstore is, uh, small. It doesn’t get any points for ‘large range’ at all.

  3. JessieSS

    I especially like the way independent bookstores artificially segregate books from each other, thus making it seem like there are two different kinds of books, which there aren’t. Although we don’t read one kind anymore because those books are different. The logic is really extraordinary. (Especially since what I like about independent bookstores is that I think they *do* blur that line in a way that the chains don’t, but that’s just preaching to the choir.)

  4. Aliette de Bodard

    That has to be the hastiest generalization I’ve ever stumbled across. I agree that most profits from the book sales come from a fraction of all printed books. However, I’ve never seen anything to indicate that those bestsellers were the shortest books… In fact, thinking about bestsellers, Harry Potter must total quite a fair number of pages by now. I don’t see any indication that people are put off by the length…

  5. Vardibidian

    My favorite part:
    …if you’re looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore.

    Er, yes, particularly if you live in Manhattan, and your local community bookstore owner has determined there isn’t much of a market in your neighborhood for Arabic poetry. If, on the other hand, you live in an Arabic neighborhood, the local community bookstore might well have what you want. And since he seems to think the superstore clerks are incompetent and ignorant, if I was special-ordering my volume of Arabic poetry, I think I’d have a better chance at my independent.

    As it happens, I live in a town with one (1) bookstore (not counting the antiquarian bookstore only open on summer weekends), and it’s an independent. If the internet and the Walmart in the next town over drive the thing out of business, I don’t see how that benefits me, even if I’m just patronizing the thing to imagine I am literary and offbeat.

    And, sadly, they sell no pornography.


  6. burger_eater

    It’s Slate. Of course the article is shallow and ill-considered. That’s pretty much their trademark.

  7. Jennifer Pelland

    An interesting point: Patrick Nielsen Hayden, in his Viable Paradise “The State of the Industry” lecture last year, said that the large chains and online stores are much better for genre publications than the independents.

  8. Jed

    Aliette: Yeah, my “over 3000 pages” link is to the Harry Potter series; it’s currently around 2600 pages, with one book left to go.

    Vardibidian: Yeah; independent bookstores can nicely serve local niche markets. (I suppose branches of big chains could do the same; I don’t actually know whether they do or not.) I think one of the things small independent bookstores in San Francisco in particular do well is political stuff–I have a vague impression that there are (or at least were) three or four leftist- and/or anarchist-focused bookstores of various sorts in and near the Mission (and, for one example outside of SF, Kepler’s was once apparently a major social/community focus for local “socially conscious” folks around Stanford). And at Valencia St. Books (R.I.P.) two weeks ago, there was a copy of The Ethical Slut on prominent display near the front of the store; I can imagine a chain store carrying the book, but I’d be very surprised to see a chain store actively promote it.

    …Another thought: I think that the purpose served by independent bookstores may vary a lot depending on the local culture and the distance to the nearest other bookstore, among other things. I’ve heard people express delight that a big chain bookstore is opening up near their small town because their local independent store (if any) had a small and constrained selection; I think in bigger cities that consider themselves cultural hubs, there are more likely to be a variety of (once-)vibrant niche independent stores that serve useful local community purposes.

    burger_eater: Interesting; I don’t read Slate regularly, and hadn’t gotten a sense of their articles as being bad in general. Usually the only thing I read there is Dahlia Lithwick’s Supreme Court reporting, which I often find interesting and insightful (although I don’t have much to compare it to).

    Jen: Yeah, I think it depends a lot of which independent store you’re talking about. Cody’s, in Berkeley, which is sadly about to close their main store, has a fantastic selection of sf even though it’s not an sf specialty store, including a bunch of small-press stuff that even the sf specialty stores don’t usually carry. (But Cody’s is a pretty big independent store, not a little mom-and-pop thing.) And then, of course, the sf specialty stores do carry a lot of stuff that the chains don’t carry. And some small hole-in-the-wall non-specialty independent stores happen to have a decent sf selection, presumably either because the proprietor likes the stuff or because there’s a good local audience for it. But yeah, there are a lot of small independent bookstores that just don’t have much genre fiction, and though they can order it, that’s not really the same.

  9. Shmuel

    My take is that as long as Amazon.Com stays in business, I don’t care if any of the brick-and-mortar shops survive. They’re superfluous. And the Postal Service goes everywhere.

  10. Michael

    Amazon has no information on some of the books I publish, and wrong information on others. They have incomplete, wrong, or missing information on many other books I own that were published in the last few years. I’ve received dozens of damaged books from Amazon, and plenty of wrong orders. They’re a great resource, but they’re no replacement for actual bookstores with actual books.

  11. Tonya L

    I sort of share the scepticism burger_eater is referring to; I listen to a small, independent radio station here in Toronto called CKLN, and others like myself knew about Abu Ghraib, and other abuses in Iraq months before the corporate media decided to break news of a scandal. Some don’t like to associate Microsoft with impartial media, and I think Slate still has that; it does for me at least. Or my memory could be wrong about Bill Gates being the one starting up Slate…

  12. Jed

    Shmuel: There are definitely lots of good things about Amazon (including some things you can’t do in brick-and-mortar stores at all), but (in addition to Michael’s concerns, which I agree with) I’m not convinced Amazon is a full replacement for b&m stores yet.

    For example, I like being able to browse books in person, to get a sense of the weight and heft of them, to feel the pages. (In the Glorious Cyberspace Future, of course, there will be no paper books, and I’m one of the few readers who won’t miss them that much. But as long as paper books is what we’re buying, I like getting to hold them before buying them.)

    There are also environmental issues with long-distance shipping, though I honestly don’t know whether the issues around shipping to b&m stores are better or worse in that regard; still, I suspect that increasing the number of shipments increasing the fuel use and thus the pollution.

    And in my experience, customer service at independent bookstores is a lot more personal than at Amazon.

    So I can imagine Amazon at some point being able to supplant b&m stores for my purposes, but it doesn’t quite do that yet.

  13. Jed

    Tonya: According to Wikipedia, Slate was “created by former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley in 1996 and funded by Microsoft as part of MSN”; in 2004, “it was bought by The Washington Post Company.” It’s not clear to me whether the MS funding was there from the start or not, nor to what extent Bill Gates was personally involved.

    Regardless, I think I’m a little uncertain about what specifically you’re criticizing; you started out by talking about “corporate media” in general being bad, but then you singled out Microsoft as not being a good source of impartial media. Do you think that Slate with MS funding is less impartial than with, say, Washington Post Company funding? This is an honest question; not meant to be sarcastic or snide.

    Btw, that Wikipedia article is worth reading; it gives a fair bit of info about Slate that I didn’t know.

  14. Tonya L

    Oh, Dear! I do think I have to aplogize for the delay in responding. Sort of been away, and real-life stuff.

    Re: Wikipedia info on the beginning of Slate: hm. my memory/impression stemmed from 1998, (around when I was taking my SCO Ace and MCP certifications) and have never followed up on that.

    And, no I do not think it would be more impartial either way. There has been concern (at least in the circles I am in) on the conglomeration of companies where more are being owned by fewer people.

    The other thing taken into account is actually where the news outlets get their news, or what attempts that may or may not go into obtaining the news, that they disseminate, or what influences dessemination, or lack thereof. Incidentally, a lot of what I’m trying to say in as little words as possible gets covered in the documentary Outfoxed, although that is not where I gained my knowledge; I’ve been familiarizing myself with stuff like that since around 2000.

    It also stems from the community activist and social activist groups I associate with, where we would be dealing with issues firsthand, that may or may not be high-profile, and seeing how it is then treated in the media such as the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and the National Post, here in Canada. It’s dissected and the political slants taken into account before, or if, one consumes their news.

    That would even extend into the media portrayal of demonstrations concerning government policies, and what actually happened, and who may or may not be responsible for a so-called ‘riot’. Being there firsthand, and knowing how things are actually done within certain groups does a lot to inform one against media portrayals that may attempt to demonize or descredit them.

    Hope that helps to answer your question.


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