a weekly column by
vol. 3 #13,
September 26, 1997
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
Richard II. William Shakespeare.
Not that it is the death of kings I mourn. One fewer king in the world matters not to me, though one fewer princess does a little. No, the sad story I want to tell as we sit upon the ground is of the death of bookstores.
You see, I learned this week that my favorite bookstore is going out of business. It will continue to wholesale books for schools, and it will order books for people, and set up a site on the web for doing business, but the store itself will be gone. And I feel very much like one of my best friends died.
Interstate Booksellers, where I have gone virtually every week for twenty years, is a smallish place, but with a wide-ranging stock that permits random exploring, the discovery of amazing things by accident. They have always had an oddball selection of humor books--the books you rarely find out about in reviews, but may be lucky enough to stumble across in a bookstore. It's where I first discovered Stephen Pile's The Incomplete Book of Failures: the Official Handbook of the Not-Terribly-Good Club of Great Britain, a drolly told chronicle of human idiocy, and Colin McEnroe's Lose Weight Through Great Sex with Celebrities (the Elvis Way), just two of many unlikely discoveries I made browsing through their stock.
Twenty years ago, when I came to Davenport, I had a 4 year old, and Interstate Booksellers and the Public Library were homes away from home for him. My bookstore had a wonderful selection of children's books. I'd take Brian there, and he'd sprawl in the aisle, with his little butt sticking up and his nose buried so deep in a book people might reasonably have supposed he read books by smelling them. Over the years, he moved from aisle to aisle, from dinosaur books to astronomy books to language books, working his way through his countless obsessions. By the time he was a teenager, he'd discovered sports and rock music, so that by the time he went away to college he probably knew everything in their entire collection as well as they did. Even now that he is grown up and fending for himself in Boston, the Weinsteins, who own the bookstore, always ask about him. Janie thinks he is the brightest, funniest young man she's ever met who doesn't happen to be her own son or grandson.
Were it not for the fact that as a librarian, I got a nice discount there, my bookbuying habits might not have become so expansive that I would probably have gotten one for buying in bulk. I always told Brian that while I didn't make a lot of money, I made enough to keep us in the three necessities of life: food, shelter, and books. I bought and special-ordered enough for me and my library that I was on Interstate's speed-dial, and I knew everybody who worked there. It's always a pleasure to chat with people who know and love books as much as you do.
They did some special extra things, too. A few years back, I decided that for Christmas I would adopt the entire third grade of Madison School, the school Brian had gone to, and would buy each child a book. I knew which books I wanted, and Rick special-ordered them for me at a special price that made it a lot easier to be generous. He didn't want any credit for it, either.
But in another month, there will be no storefront, no regular visit to these people I've known so well for so long, no serendipitous discoveries browsing through their stock. The bookstore will die for some of the same reasons so many other bookstores have died in the last couple of years.
You see, the discounters moved into the best seller market. Because they buy in such huge quantities, they can negotiate deeply slashed wholesale prices, prices not available to independent booksellers who order fewer at a time. Then the discounters can sell the books at 25% off the cover price. Naturally people can't resist a bargain, and people increasingly began to buy their best-sellers at Sam's and Wal-Mart and Target, going to their independent bookstores for the books that weren't quite so much in demand.
The trouble is, of course, that the independent bookstores can only afford to stock wide selections of less popular books because of the nice profits from best sellers. When the discounters undercut their prices, the independents had no choice but to cut their own prices on them too. There went the nice little profit margin. Small independent bookstores started going out of business.
And then the megabookstore chains moved in. Barnes and Noble stores, Borders stores, even newly revived Kroch's and Brentano's outlets, started springing up all over the place. Chain bookstores were following the Wal-Mart model. They weren't cozy contemplative places, and the clerks were more interested in moving you through the lines fast than in chatting about books, but they had good prices. The competition hurt the smaller dealers, who didn't have the clout to get the best prices, the fastest deliveries. More small independent bookstores died.
And then Amazon came along on the net, followed closely by Barnes and Noble. They had enormous stocks, they discounted, and they delivered to your door. You couldn't browse their shelves, exactly, but you could do keyword searching, and you could read reviews online. They were not the kind of place where you'd happen across something you didn't know you wanted, but they were convenient. The closing of bookstores was reaching epidemic levels.
But even then, my bookstore might have survived. I was not the only one who loved it, and preferred shopping there to shopping at any of its competitors. The kiss of death was not competition but street repair. I have often joked that Locust Street in Davenport was always under repair and never fixed, but 'tain't funny, it turns out. My bookstore had the bad fortune to be located on Locust Street, and two summers ago, the street repair crews closed down the section right in front of it for an entire summer.
Which might have been just a temporary nuisance, except that the following summer, damned if the street repair crews didn't come back and close down the same stretch again. Us loyalists, of course, managed to get through to our favorite store by way of the side streets. But for the casual buyers, it was too much hassle, and they went elsewhere. Worse, they got out of the habit of coming to Interstate.
This summer they closed down Locust Street again. Not the stretch exactly in front of my store, but close enough so that again, getting there was a bit of a nuisance. And the owners gave in--I guess there are only so many slings and arrows of outrageous fortune anyone can fight at the same time.
You know, books are not just merchandise. They mean more to people than athletic shoes and CD players. And these independent bookstores are not just shops but outposts of civilization, places where the traffic is in words and ideas, dreams and storytelling, and where the people who sell and the people who buy will talk to each other about the books they love. The people who ring up our purchases there are not clerks, but matchmakers, always looking for the perfect book for that person, and the perfect home for that book. The death of any such bookstore diminishes me-- and diminishes a literate world.
Was it worth losing this to get Tom Clancy's latest at 25% off the cover price?
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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