Bookstores and buggy whips

David Streitfeld in the Los Angeles Times writes about the rising death toll last year among independent bookstores in California -- previously thought to be immune to Amazon's effect on bookbuyers.

The headline in a surviving bookstore's ad -- "rare but not extinct" -- reminds one of the cliche comparison about "going the way of the buggy whip" as a statement of economic obsolescence. Actually, if a company survives such a cultural-technological shift, it can find that it's now in a much smaller market -- but it has that whole market pretty much to itself. The Westfield Whip Manufacturing Co. in Westfield, Massachussetts (once eyebrow-raisingly known as "Whip City") owns the last remaining, 19th-century whip braiding machine in the U.S. And the town manufactures more high-grade whips than anywhere else in the country. Small consolation, I suppose, to all those people who lost factory jobs along the way, but it does mean there is life after horseless carriages and life after the internet.

Nowhere in Mr. Streitfeld's otherwise thoroughly reported article does anyone address the fact that bookstores satisfy customers with something in addition to just books for purchase. The independents that survive often make themselves an integral part of their communities -- they are "destination" stores, "event" stores.

It's a fact, for example, that the Dallas-Fort Worth area suffers when it comes to author tours because publishers do not want to send an author to an empty chainstore in AnySuburbAnywhere. It's depressing for a novelist to sit at a table for two hours with no one knowing who the hell he is. It might make him think his publisher isn't marketing his book and make him start thinking about getting another publisher. Well-run independents know they have to do more than just set the books out on the shelves; they have to bring people in. When they present authors, they often use mailing lists of customers to draw an audience.

Which is why publishers repeatedly send big-name authors to Book People in Austin or Brazos Bookstore in Houston -- and bypass all of Dallas-Fort Worth. There is no major independent bookstore here. An author can be touring to 12 cities, I've even seen 24-city tours -- and Dallas-Fort Worth isn't on his itinerary. Authors such as Martin Amis have come to Texas several times, and never stopped here.

So that's why it's worrisome when a Clean Well-Lighted Place closes or a Micawber closes. It's not just that Amazon has killed another one; it's that a long-time community asset has gone, a gathering place for people who read, a place to connect over coffee and books and shared literary interests. There aren't many such places left in American cities, whether the place is public, private or commercial.

February 7, 2007 9:25 AM | | Comments (1)



Your comments about independent book stores are dead on: I tend to buy books from a mix of Amazon, a local used shop, and occasionally from the Elliott Bay Book Co. or the University Bookstore, but I only go to the latter two to hear authors. In Seattle, they're the destination bookstores.

Reading this post is quite a coincidence because I just uploaded my own comments about a recent talk Martin Amis gave in Seattle, which Elliott Bay hosted. The crowd was reasonably large and lively as these things can be, and Amis was fun. A friend bought a book from Elliott Bay that she wouldn't have otherwise. But her book purchase came about not because she wanted to support independent book stores, but rather because the bookstore offered something she (and I) couldn't get from Amazon or B&N. To the extent independent bookstores are going to survive, they need to do just that.


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on February 7, 2007 9:25 AM.

Mentoring was the previous entry in this blog.

Jim and George is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.