[Editor's Note: Don't miss Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture author Kaya Oakes's reading at Powell's City of Books on Monday, June 29th, at 7:30pm.
I write a lot about cultural cycles. Within indie culture, the cycles of DIY creativity are directly impacted by the economy, politics, and the mood of the nation. Historically, independent artists have reacted to the state of the world by taking matters into their own hands, and an engaged dialogue with your community ? whether it's local, national, or international ? is a crucial part of the evolution of what we call indie today. Indie artists have always depended on one another, but they also depend on independent businesses to sell their wares, and all those record stores, book stores, comic book shops, music venues, and art galleries have developed intimate relationships with artists.
In this depressed economic climate, it's interesting to be setting off on a mini tour of independent bookstores. On the one hand, I'm stoked to bring the book out at a time when DIY is something we're all doing (whether we like it or not). On the other hand, the impact of the economy on independent bookstores has been severe. As I sat last summer writing a chapter about independent publishing, Cody's Books in Berkeley disappeared after 52 years in business. Having grown up in Oakland, the city next door, I'd been making pilgrimages to Cody's since I was in the womb. Seeing Cody's close was a heartbreaker, and doubly sucked because I never got to read there. By the time my first book was published, they'd already cut way back on events.
And now Black Oak Books in Berkeley has just shut its doors for good. When I was a starving MFA student, I worked at Black Oak, and as soon as my bosses realized I could tear through a book in a couple of days and say intelligible things about it, they put me to work hosting events. Back in the late '90s, Black Oak was a real destination for events, featuring a huge range of authors. Publishing was in pretty good shape at that point: authors had media escorts who drove them around, got put up in nice local hotels, got taken out to dinner (Black Oak was a block from the world famous Chez Panisse), and they got a free book of their choice at the end of their reading. (The free book was a big deal; if we forgot to offer it, some writers would nudge us: "I heard writers get a free book here! Can I pick mine now?") All of this looked very promising from my perspective. I figured I'd get my MFA, sign a book deal, and be wined and dined in no time. In reality, things didn't work out like that, but I imagine this is how some indie bands felt watching Nirvana blow up. But we all know how that turned out.
Black Oak started struggling around the time I left my job there for full-time work as a writing instructor at UC Berkeley. At that point in the early 2000s, evidence of the decline of the independent bookstore was appearing all over the Bay Area. A big chain opened in downtown Berkeley, much to the chagrin of the indie store across the street. Amazon started offering free shipping and deep discounts. Authors still came in for events, but the crowds were smaller and smaller except for the occasional Martin Amis (who spent the evening rhapsodizing about the movie Starship Troopers and smoking outside), and our tables had less and less new inventory and the owners looked more and more miserable. Black Oak was in a very affluent neighborhood and had loyal customers, but it still struggled with the changing times.
When I saw those changes taking place, I decided to take matters into my own hands, because the days of wining and dining authors were clearly coming to an end. I started an independent magazine with friends, published my first book with a tiny indpendent press, booked my own events, started making connections with other writers via blogs and writing websites, and found that the hustle wasn't all that bad. I'd published a zine in the past and had worked with indie bands via clubs and college radio stations, so adapting their methods for survival in a writing career was pretty natural to me. Independent bookstores had always made similar moves, and now began to make them in different ways, embracing online bookselling, forging closer relationships with their communities, reaching out to readers with personalized recommendations and staff picks, blogging and Twittering and working with other bookstores to help insure one another's survival.
As I set out on my first real book tour, I mourn the loss of many independent stores where I could have read, but I'm even more appreciative of the ones that still exist. This tour is happening DIY style: I'm flying to Seattle on donated frequent flyer miles, no media escorts are involved (Google maps and public transit will suffice), I'm crashing with family and friends, and I'm hoping to make it on a budget of about $20 a day. If I can manage that, my reward will be spending lots of money at the stores where I'm reading. After all, we really do need one another.