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On the subject of independent bookstores...

...one of rdeck 's friends, Sherry Gottlieb, who once ran the original "A Change of Hobbit" bookstore, offered some fascinating - if discouraging - insight into the indie-vs-big chain discussion.

A couple of years ago, in response to a similar discussion (it never goes away, does it?) Sherry wrote, in part:

For 19 years, in the '70s and '80s, I was an independent bookseller, owner of A Change of Hobbit [which] grew to become the oldest and largest science-fiction and fantasy bookstore in the world. (When it closed in 1991, CoH [had] 75,000 books and magazines, selling not only to
the greater Los Angeles area, but also to mail order clients around the country and around the world.)

I saw firsthand what the big bookstore chains did to the independents, and Borders is one of the worst. Borders policy has always been, and is still: To find an area where a large independent
is doing well, move in, undercut prices, bring in expensive promotions subsidized by publishers, and drive the independent out of business.

Borders and other big chains ... get preferential discounts from the publishers, a radically better rate than that offered to independents... subsidized advertising, and first crack at major authors on tour.

The only ways that independents can hope to survive amid this onslaught are by:
* Specializing. When the chains began to use their preferential
discounts to undercut independents in the late '70s, early '80s,
almost every general independent in the Los Angeles area was forced
out of business. The ones who hung on were the specialists/genre
bookstores (SF, mystery, travel, children's books, etc.)
* Outstanding knowledge of books. Try to go into Borders and ask
the nearest clerk for a book you read once, but can't remember the
name of, and describe the plot -- chances are, they'll shrug and say
they need the title. Do that at an independent, and the clerk will
make guesses, call over everyone in the store and ask them, and do
their best to identify and find the book for you.
* Special orders and searches....Independents ... will do
searches for out-of-print books -- we even did it for OP paperbacks,
keeping a customer's request in the file until we found the book (our
record was 13 years).
* Selection. You have no idea what [chains] DON'T carry... the
chains have virtually killed any chance of a new author to get
"discovered" or even published. If the chains don't order heavily on
a book, publishers now kill the publication. Used to be that the
independents would "hand-sell" books they liked and develop a
groundswell of word-of-mouth that could make a new career.

..Pretty soon, you will be able to buy only what the big chains think you want.
Sherry Gottlieb


With the ever-shrinking short story market, and the vanishing of even the possibility of the mid-list, new authors are finding it increasingly difficult to break in - and those with even remotely original, unusual or "it is not immediately apparent to the accounting department how we would market this book" ideas are plumb out of luck.

Is it really our inevitable fate to settle into a future of books cloned from known bestsellers, written quite possibly by people hand-picked for their marketability rather than their writing skills or passion or vocation...? Even "Harry Potter" the phenomenon was rejected a number of times, which means that someone somewhere failed to see its phenomenological potential - but it was published anyway, given a CHANCE, and look what happened next. What if the next Harry Potter never gets that chance, because it's just that little bit different, that little bit unusual, considered just that little bit too risky an "investment" for the publishers?...

I would like to hope not. Every year I see a number of amazing books published, some of them by people I am proud to call friends. I am acquainted with a number of stellar editors whom I do not believe capable of being driven by bottom line alone, who would fight for something that they felt deserved fighting for. And yet... and yet.... ALL of this - wonderful writers, great editors - ALL of it bottlenecks in the marketing and publicity and sales department. Even those GIVEN a chance at a debut are given that chance at swordspoint - your first book don't sell, you're out, sweetheart. Forget about building a reputation or an audience. It's publish or perish in a whole new guise.

Writers - readers - booksellers - what think you?

One less

There's a bookstore in Mount Vernon called Scott's Bookstore - in an old brick building, one of those classic funky, unique, independent bookstores which you love to go into not just because of the inventory but because being in there is an experience, it's a journey and not a destination, it's got people working in it who know their stock and who can TELL you about it - all the best that an independent bookstore could offer.

Well. It's about half an hour to forty minutes away from us by car, and we don't go there every day - but we DO go there, every so often, and with the new book imminent we thought we'd go visit the place this morning, leave them a few bookmarks, let them know it's coming.

The first thing I saw as I negotiated the odd little twisty main street approach in downtown Mount Vernon was a large banner sign attached to the bookstore building, partially obscuring the name painted on the bricks, flapping in the wind.

"Store closing".

Well, damn.

We walked into what was billed as a "huge sale" (although, well, there was a rack of books at 75% off and some of the others were being sold at 10-30% off, which ins't exactly HUGE, but anyway). And apparently it had been going on for some time because a lot of the shelves were quite bare. The middle ones, where the science fiction and fantasy usually lived, were missing altogether.

This sucks, you know. It sucks big time. I appreciate that the owners of these places have lives too and sometimes these lives take precedence - but there are so few left, so few good independent bookstores left, that it hurts to see another one go by the wayside. Literally thousands of independent bookstores have closed in the last ten years - succumbing to pressured from the Barnes and Nobles of this world, and to big-chain mass-market outlets like Costco, and more recently and overwhelmingly to online sellers like Amazon. Recent high-profile indie closures, the ones that make the news and the blogosphere, include Cody's Books in Berkeley, California, and a bookstore called A Clean Well-Lighter Place for Books in San Francisco (and this one's personal, folks, it was one of the stops on my Jin Shei book tour, and I hate it that they're gone - it's part of my OWN history...) There have been a couple of cases where the mere threat of closure of a beloved independent has fired the community to sometimes exceedingly creative efforts to save the bookstores; relatively recent examples include Kepler's Books in Menlo Park and Cover-to-Cover Books in San Francisco. But these latter are almost flukes - financial pressures are huge, rents are high, and when booksales are not as high as they need to be the expenses usually come out of the owner's pockets. I am aware of that. I buy independent when I can, for that very reason - my own backyard indie shop, Village Books in Fairhaven, knows my face well, and not because I'm a local author and occasionally take part in events organised at the store. No, they know my face because they see it so often across the cash register. rdeck and I have spent hundreds of dollars at this place.

But oh, DAMMIT. I can't support EVERY independent bookstore I pass. And the vanishing of Scott's hurts. I hate it when stores with this much personality go away. It takes years to build up such a personality. It isn't something that can be recreated from scratch. It takes a faithful clientele, people who know your place, who trust it and who trust you, a certain community spirit. When that's gone, there's a hole in the world - and Scott's will leave a hole.

One less.

It's a sad day.

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