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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What's This About Indie Bookstores?

Indie bookstores suck. There. I've said it. But before you kill me or send me hate mail or flame the comments section with angry retorts about why indie bookstores are so much better than Borders, let me explain why I say that such stores suck.

First, let's look at why it is that people go to Borders or B&N or one of the other big book chains out there. Contrary to what is being said about Borders (it being the evil bookstore because it doesn't stock every book and some authors aren't being carried anymore), each Borders store (with exception, perhaps, to the mall stores) carries quite a huge selection of titles. Every Borders I have been to, and I have been to many, has had a rather large SF/F section, with mass markets taking up about 3/4ths of the overall SF/F stock, and trade/hardcovers taking the last 1/4th. I haven't counted how many different SF/F books are in the Borders in downtown Santa Cruz, but if I were to guess I'd have to say somewhere between 500 and 1,000. That's "different" books, not repeats or extra copies or reprints. I know, that's just a fraction of the SF/F books that are printed every year, and obviously some of the books Borders carries, or at least still has, are either popular titles or leftovers from the last year that they decided to hang on to until they sold.

Borders also lets you order books that they don't have, both new and used, and doesn't charge you for shipping (indie stores generally don't charge shipping either). What makes Borders one of the best places to shop for new books is the fact that it has such a huge selection. Of course there are authors who don't end up on their shelves, but what's to stop you from going up to the counter and saying "I would like to order such and such book" if you're so upset about your favorite author not being on the shelf? In fact, I'd place some of the blame on you, the buyer, for not taking an active stance of support for your favorite authors; you could easily make Borders think twice about what it carries if you, the fan, were to buy those books there, even by ordering, and get other people to do the same. But, that's really not what this post is about.

What this post is about is why indie bookstores are not the greatest stores ever. In fact, I would argue that the vast majority of indie bookstores actually suck. For this argument I'm going to intentionally avoid all such stores that are primarily used bookstores, because they really occupy a different category from everything else due to the fact that they don't, as a rule, carry newer books and thus take profit from reselling older titles or collectible books, which have absolutely no direct influence on sales for the author (one could probably argue that the used bookstore shopper might randomly decide to buy an author's older work, like it, and thus move on to the author's newer work, but that would be hard to prove, now wouldn't it?). So, I'm focusing on indie stores that have a significant portion of their sales, or at least a significant portion of their stock, be from newer titles.

Maybe things are different on the east coast. Maybe over there every town has a brilliant, perfect indie bookstore with all the books you could ever want, with excellent service, etc. But here on the west coast, indie bookstores are generally rather pathetic. There are a handful of exceptional stores that I know of (Powell's City of Books in Portland--one of the best bookstores I have ever been to, by the way, with rather knowledgeable staff members--Borderlands in San Francisco--also one of the best, and focused on SF/F--and Mysterious Galaxies in LA--which I have never been to, but am told is quite good and is well known for author talks; I might also add Bookshop Santa Cruz, which is downtown and has a reasonable stock and is actually rather decent). The thing is, those large (or SF/F specialized) stores are rather rare out here. Every town you go to will not have a Powell's or a Borderlands. Some towns with some history may have a Book Shop Santa Cruz. But almost every town that has indie bookstores will have those stores that nobody shops at, and depending on the size of the town they may have many of these kinds of stores.

What makes these stores suck?
  • First, selection. I know I talked about Borders not having every book, but when you go into an indie store, most of them will likely carry all the bestsellers, past and present, and a minuscule medley of other titles. They barely succeed in outdoing the grocery store and are far less convenient since you have to specifically go to these stores to buy books rather than going to the grocery store to do two things at once.
  • Second, those stores that try to be a little more "fun" also tend to be "niche" stores. While it's perfectly fine to be a niche store--such as the bookstore in Placerville, California that carries an assortment of things like screenplays and humorous Buddy Jesus action figures (it's not a religious store, they're meant to be funny in the Kevin Smith vein)--such stores lack the ability to appeal to a wider audience. Borders has huge sections of books on all sorts of subjects, offering shoppers of various interests to browse for a good amount of time. So, while you might think that the cool Buddy Jesus bookstore downtown is the greatest thing ever, someone else might not and likely won't shop there because of that. This is an argument against Borderlands and Mysterious Galaxies too, although both those stores happen to be niche only because they focus on specific genres and not because they aim for a certain type of customer. What makes those two stores exceptional, however, is what will be a part of my next complaint.
  • Third, not every indie bookstore happens to have knowledgeable staff members or people who even pretend that they give a flying fig. This might be because some of those small mom-and-pop bookstores are run by people who are retired and thus don't really care about making money (it's something to do), or it might not. I don't know. All I know is that almost every indie bookstore is not like Powell's with people who actually know what they're talking about when you ask them for recommendations. The people at Borderlands and, I presume, Mysterious Galaxy actually read the books they carry (not all of them, obviously, but because these stores happen to engage with the authors and the readers their employees tend to know a lot more about the genres they specialize in that folks and regular indie stores). Obviously, this argument works against Borders, to a certain extent (they do have an "employee recommendation" thing now, which is nothing more than a little note on the shelves with a blurb about why a certain book is good). Most of the employees at Borders aren't really there because they love books. They're there for paycheck, and that's okay.
  • Fourth, why would anyone go out of their way to support an indie bookstore that most likely won't carry what they want anyway when they could go to a chain store and likely find exactly what they are looking for? Honest question. This is the same argument used for shopping at Walmart: why go elsewhere when Super Walmart has everything I want? Additionally, indie stores have a higher tendency of costing more. They don't have sales, buy-one-get-one deals, etc. In a time when money is precious, gas costs about as much as a gallon of milk, and the economy is teetering on the cliff with claws dug in while the government keeps kicking it in the back, is it a surprise at all that people would rather go to a chain store? I'm not saying it's right, but I am saying that I understand it. Back when gas was $0.99 a gallon and people were making the same as they are now, they might not have cared so much about saving that $0.25 here or there. But now, a lot of families are suffering, not just because they are losing their houses, but because the once secure life they held is rapidly disappearing. The days of the average America family going off on long, wild road trips are almost gone. So, we should all understand that this is just the way it is, and it sucks.
  • Fifth, which I already mentioned, there simply are not enough good indie bookstores out there, whereas Borders is all over the place. Like I said, every town does not have a Powell's. This is due to a lot of reasons: such stores went out of business, they were never there, or only small stores ever came and never became anything else, or the town is just too small for a Powell's.
If those aren't good reasons, I don't know what are. I'm not saying that you shouldn't support indie stores. What I am saying is that there's a valid reason behind why people don't support such stores: most of them suck. If you really hate Borders or B&N, then shop at Amazon--they carry everything.

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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:07 AM

    You make some valid points, and is about the all mighty dollar, but then we create a catch-22 situation here. Indy bookstores might get better--carry more selections, have sales, etc...--if more people shopped at them. For the consumer, as you note, there is very little incentive to head to a smaller, indy store, because of price and selection. Just like for the store itself, there is little or no incentive to carry more, if people aren't coming through the door. They simply cannot afford it.
    I do my shopping at Barnes and Noble, small (Indy) bookstores and the internet, and while its cheaper to go to B&N or the internet (more selection too) I do enjoy heading into a small, somewhat disorganized bookshop to see what they have there. The way I look at it: I love books, and I want to support other people who loves books (which I would argue that the owners/managers of bookstores do since they chose to make their living off that risky and highly unprofitable venture). But mostly, I go to the library because that is the best way to get books. Sure, I don't get to own them, but I do get to read them for free, and they (unless they're a small town library) always have the best selection.