Monday, August 08, 2011

Thoughts on Bookstores

Last night a friend asked me what would happen to our TCU campus bookstore if Barnes & Noble went under. I looked blank for a minute and then realized she had the two chains mixed up. I assured her it was Border's that was closing, but it occurred to me the reading public doesn' t know much about the situation except that it has meant some great bargains at Border's stores as they clear their shelves. That confusion might be a problem for B&N, but I'm sure they'll counter it with effective publicity.
What Border's bankruptcy means for publishers, agents, and authors is a dramatic difference. I read somewhere that Border's has $1 billion in unpaid bills, which will trickle down. Publishers won't get paid, and they won't pay their authors. Publishers will probably also do some belt-tightening--maybe cut the size of their lists (drastic for authors in a climate where it's already hard to stand out from the crowd of authors waiting to be published). Publishers may also cut print runs, which of course will affect authors. Who knows what wiill happen to book prices? It's not just one company closing; it's a whole climate shift in a publishing world that has already been turned topsy turvy by what one independent bookstore owner called "this perfect storm of bad economy, bad weather, bad management, and changing industry."
The good news may be for the independent bookstores, called "indies" in the book world. In some places, the closing of the local Border's will leave an indie as the only bookstore. Many who study bookselling predict that this major event may signal the comeback of the indies, which have been closing right and left for several years. Shelf Awareness, an online daily column for booksellers, has been chronicling the close of bookstores across the country for some time now, but lately there seems to be a more optimistic note.
In my neighborhood, the one indie bookstore closed perhaps six months ago (we do have two Barnes & Nobles stores nearby, one of them the campus bookstore). The indie used to frustrate me when I was at TCU Press because the owner would buy one copy of a book. "What if you sell it?" I asked. "Then we'll order another." No good pointing out that there would be a gap of days when the book wouldn't be on the shelves. On the other hand, our sales rep called on a small museum store on the North Side where, years ago, the manager would wave a hand and say, "I'll take two dozen of this one and a dozen of that one." Love people like that.
But indie bookstores offer so much. They are the stores where you know the bookseller and he or she knows you, knows what you like to read. They may keep a pot of coffee on for customers, and they're great at hand-selling. When they find a book they like, they may carry it around with them, pointing out its virtues to individual customers. They know their stock and can lead you to a certain section or title without consulting a computer. They'll chat with you about the neighborhood, your children and grandchildren, the weather--whatever. When you're a regular customer, you become family. It's always lovely to be welcomed into a store by name.
Don't get me wrong. I shop at B&N a lot. Their booksellers are uniformly friendly and cooperative, and they obviously have a much larger stock than an indie. And while they're pulling back on the book signings, they still do them on occasion and attract anywhere from one to thirty or more people. I've been to some great programs at B&B stores, They're also generous about the number of books they order for signings, so an author never has to turn disappointed buyers away. (Of course that leads to the returns policy that is the bane of publishers' planning and budgeting.)
I wish continued success for B&N as a chain--its had its difficult moments recently too--and at the sasme time for the Phoenix-like rise of the indie bookstore. If I were young (and fairly well off), I'd open one. As it is, I might like to work part time in a small, intimate store. That's probably all as far-fetched as my dream of owning a small restaurant, but dreams are nice.

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