Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Are Chain Bookstores Better Than Indies?

Tyler Cowen writes an article provocatively titled "What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For?" at Slate, which answers the question with "Not much."

Cowen uses Laura Miller's new book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption as a jumping off point for concluding that big chain bookstores are better in just about every respect than independent bookstores.

Cowen's conclusion is based on several points that I find debatable and not well founded.

"Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case."

I concede that there is some merit to this.

"But when it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems. The superstores' scale allows them to carry many more titles, usually several times more, than do most of the independents."

I disagree with all of this. I live in North Hollywood, California and have been in a number of chain bookstores many times over the years: B&N, Bookstar, and Crown Books (before the chain folded).

My biggest consistent complaint about chain stores is that they have very little depth of selection within any given category of book. Perhaps they have more books in a B&N than an independent, but how many of those are merely more copies of the frontlisted, popular books than an indie would carry?

When I've gone to a B&N and looked in the science fiction section, I've found a few books by the stalwarts of the sf backlist-Asimov, Bradbury, & Clarke-and a lot of series entries and media tie-ins, but nothing off the beaten path.

I've found an equally weak selection in biography and film/television. What's worse, which Cowen misses, is that all chain bookstores are cloned. They all carry the exact same titles as determined by the centralized purchasing decisions of their chain's buyers. If one Barnes & Noble doesn't stock a title you're looking for, none of the others will.

Where are the discounts Cowen touts? Chains discount the New York Times bestsellers, but what else?

"Part of the value of indies was that they helped introduce us to new titles; Shakespeare & Co. in Lower Manhattan features different books than does Barnes & Noble. But with the advent of the Internet, the literary world has more room for independence—if not always in its old forms—than ever before."

Here Cowen confirms what I've just said. Indies foster eclecticism in their inventory because each store reflects the personalities of their owners and buyers. But, Cowen says, it's OK because you can find whatever you want on the internet.

The problem is that online bookstores like Amazon aren't amenable to browsing and the joys of accidental discoveries. I can't go to Amazon and search for "new film books" and turn up something I may not have known existed that I would love to read.

"The indies themselves aren't always paragons of cultural virtue, either."

Some are, some aren't, but it isn't fair to compare the best chain bookstores to the worst independent bookstores.

Dutton's Books, which opened in North Hollywood in the early 60s recently closed. Then I learned that the Illiad Bookshop, an attractive used bookstore also in North Hollywood, closed. I've lived in Los Angeles since 1967 and many of the independent bookstores and many independent stores of all kinds have closed, giving way to chains and franchises. Bookstores I used to frequent and fondly remember that are gone: A Change of Hobbit, Alpha Books, Cherokee Books, Dangerous Visions, Dutton's Books, The Paperback Shack, Partridge Boooks, Pickwick Books, Portrait of a Bookstore, and Scene of the Crime.

I can't say that chain bookstores don't have some desireable aspects. They are located throughout the city, are accessible, keep long hours, are clean, and temperate.

They are also uniform and sterile. They look as if they were formed from a giant template and dropped into place. They have no character. They seem as if they were designed and created by a computer. They are as inviting as a supermarket, which, in their way, is exactly what they are.

The supplanting of independent bookstores by chains is symptomatic of what has happened to the business and cultural landscape. We now have a cookie cutter culture. I loved Los Angeles years ago, but as the bookstores, businesses and restaurants I loved to frequent keep winking out of existence, I feel increasingly as if I'm living in a city and society produced by pod people.

In his Amazon review of Norman Mailer's The Big Empty, NotPerfectBut writes, "We actually have nothing left that can be referred to, with any seriousness, as a 'culture.' We just have different corporate entities using different means of entertainment with which they focus our attention on anything other than what it mean to be 'alive' or truly 'human.' It's a very extraordinary, and extraordinarly dangerous period of history to be living in."

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