Note: This is my last post. Thanks to Dave Weich and everyone at Powell's for letting me steer this week, and to you for reading. It's been a lot of fun.
When I travel, I try to book a hotel close to an independent bookstore, and then visit that bookstore on my first day of exploring. I'm not the greatest traveler, more of a homebody than I like to admit. But finding a bookstore means that no matter how far I am from what I know, there are readers here, people who care about books and the role bookstores play in their own lives and that of their community. I feel like I share values with my temporary hosts, even if we share almost nothing else. I feel safe.
It was three summers ago when the WebVisions conference asked me, against their better judgement, to speak. I'm a rabid technology amateurist but at a complete loss when asked to provide anything useful. But I had never been to Portland before and figured I'd have plenty more chances in life to make an ass of myself. I accepted their invitation and a room at the Hotel Lucia in downtown Portland, walking distance to Powell's.
Of course I knew about Powell's, the same way a toy collector knows about FAO Schwartz. It's Mecca, the point of pilgrimage for people blessed with an obsession many of their friends and loved ones don't understand; its 4 floors and 7 rooms not only endorse that obsession but say, yes, come in.
So I spent the better part of an afternoon climbing stairs and squeezing between shelves, getting lost, turned wrongways and not caring. When it came time for my own book tour 2 years later, Powell's invited me. Last summer, I signed the ledger of authors who had come there before me, heroes named Bender and Rushdie, Tan and Cunningham, Mosley and Lethem. I felt like I'd joined the all-star team. Even though my stats were nothing compared the others, Powell's had made room.
We're lucky as supporters and fans that Powell's has what many independent bookstores don't. Thanks to its size, reputation, staff, and foresight, Powell's prospers in an environment increasingly hostile to independent bookstores. Forget blaming Barnes & Noble and Amazon. That's just the beginning. Add TiVo, iPods, Netflix, and a hundred other ways to get entertainment delivered to your door. The battle for customers in the very near future will be less for book-buying dollars than it will for attention and time.
Because my book celebrated the endurance of books and writing in the digital age, I still get emails congratulating me for ignoring the lure of pixels for pages. Nothing could be further from the truth. Born in 1973, I am a creature of a media age, first of cable TV and Atari as a child, then the Internet in college. I TiVo, podcast, blog, read rss feeds, and play with my XBox. I also read books with fiendish glee. Media helps me feel connected to the age I live in. It also inspires me to create my own.
We simply cannot pretend our beloved independent bookstores will be there forever. The future approaches too rapidly. Time is not doing them any favors.
We know this, and yet I still read dozens of newspaper articles every year about some city's favorite bookstore (a "community institution," they're all community institutions) closing its doors. These obituaries are so homoginized they may as well have been written by a gang of monkeys at typewriters: Sad announcement, list of reasons, "I can't believe it's gone" quote from customers, Time Marches On last paragraph." Tone never varies. A sad "tsk tsk" about the steamroller of progress and how "there's just no room for the little guy anymore."
Nonsense. I may sound like a regional snob but twice in the last few years an independent bookstore in the San Francisco Bay Area threatened closure only to be saved by a rallying cry from customers. Both Kepler's Books (nearly 50 years old) and neighborhood favorite Cover to Cover were consigned to death by these same obituaries and then rescued by an outpouring of community support, raised money, offerings of pro bono services, and commitments to increase patronage. Whether these efforts succeed in the long term remains to be seen. Point: Progress pounded at these bookstores too and their customers wouldn't let them die.
Friends, if we want bookstores, movie theatres, coffee shops, and hardware stores that are pillars of our neighborhoods instead of lots sold off to the highest renter, we have to support them. Period. And that doesn't just mean shopping there instead of at the mall, although that's part of it. It means giving of your time if you can't give your money. It means sending others there if you can't give of either.
I'm tired of reading articles that treat the death of independent bookstores like a foregone conclusion. I'm tired of the learned-helplessness of both booksellers and customers who don't ask for or offer aid until it's too late. It's up to us if we want these institutions around because waiting for the future to not arrive is believing in fairies. The future is already here.
Below are a list of ways you can make sure you're not reading your favorite bookstore's obituary in the local paper. Do what you can. Then think of your life without them and do a little bit more.
1) Before you do your book purchasing, think. Do you really need that book today? Would it kill you to pay a few dollars more? If the answer is yes to both, buy it online. If you're wavering, call your favorite local bookstore, have them hold it, and then write yourself a note to pick it up on your next nearby outing.
2) Services: Are you a service provider with a few hours to spare? Could you do pro bono legal work for your neighborhood bookstore? Could you make the employees lunch during the holiday season? Bookstores may be for-profit institutions, but they are no less vital to our communities than churches and parks. We don't only have to support them through purchasing.
3) Make sure your bookstore has a website and a mailing list. The number of deceased bookstores I read about with no presence in cyberspace is staggering. The web is no longer someplace teenagers and geeks entertain themselves. To the customers of tomorrow, it is the Phone Book, Consumer Reports, the atlas, and the local newspaper. If you're not online, to them, you don't exist.
It's no longer quaint or charming to be a luddite but deadly. Offer to host a fundraising drive for your bookstores web presence. If you're a designer, offer some simple mockups. Mailing lists are even easier. Create a Friends of Bookstore Yahoo Group.
4) Involve your bookstore in the neighborhood. If you're a neighborhood merchant, operate a local business or run a neighborhood association, funnel your book buying through the store. Offer to trade services for books. Consider cross-merchandising programs where a coupon/display/discount for your business gets the same at the bookstore's.
5) Talk. Know the employees' names and the owner on sight. Ask how business is. Make it clear that there is a loyal constituency both in and outside the store. I have a feeling most bookstores close their doors because they don't believe the support exists to keep them open. As soon as they announce closure, they're almost always proven wrong.
Let them know.
None of these steps will save a bookstore that can't keep its stock straight, hire decent staff, or treats its customers poorly. Those bookstores probably don't deserve survival. But to those that do, support them the same way you would any community institution. Isn't that what they are?