Monday, February 06, 2006

Comment: It's The Local Economy, Smarty

Thank goodness for Shelf Awareness! Their daily email on book industry news and events is an invaluable source of information on books getting buzz, business statistics and trends in publishing and bookselling, and bookstore openings, closings, and programs, among other things. And unlike an unfortunately large percentage of media outlets, the editors of SA don't start out with the assumptions that 1) real literacy is disappearing, if not already a thing of the past; 2) independent bookstores are cute but doomed to failure; 3) the Internet and the bookstore can't be friends. No, their reports on what's actually happening out there are uplifting more often than not, because they're not interested in perpetuating old stereotypes about bookselling. They do report when a good bookstore falls by the wayside, but there are just more stories about stores enacting great programs, opening up in new markets, analyzing trends and developing new ideas.

This past week Shelf Awareness reported on the American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute (which I would have given my eye teeth, whatever they are, to go to) -- a new program, off-season from the much bigger Book Expo America, designed specifically around workshops for bookseller professional development. The Institute was held in Long Beach, CA (which is why I couldn't go), to make it more accessible for booksellers who can't always travel to the usually East Coast-centered BEA. I've been hearing bits and pieces of reports back, and it sounds like it was a great education for all involved.

SA mentioned specifically a session on a topic that's a favorite of mine: Buy Local movements. These are grassroots projects of an alliance of small businesses in a certain area, often led by independent bookstores, meant to draw attention to the benefits of buying from local stores as opposed to frequenting chain stores.

Various national organizations, such as the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) have sprung up to help provide information and services to such movements, but their leadership is by necessity local. One great thing AMIBA can provide is access to the various surveys that have been completed regarding the impact of independent businesses, in locations varying from Austin, Texas to rural Maine. These show consistently that three times as much money stays in the local economy when you buy from a local independent store as when you buy from a chain. That means that your book purchase (or hardware, clothing, flowers, prescriptions, etc.) is going to feed local workers, support local tax-based projects like public works, and make your community a better place to live -- as opposed to whisking right out of town to the corporate headquarters of a chain and padding the bank account of an executive.

Betsy Burton of The King's English Bookstore in Salt Lake City Utah is behind her city's Buy Local First campaign. Dee Robinson of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington is one of the founders of a Sustainable Connections project there. And Carla Jimenez of Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida is part of the Tampa Independent Business Alliance. (There are other similar projects, such as Austin's famous and fabulous Keep Austin Weird, which is an appreciation of local culture as well as a campaign against corporate anonymity, though not explicitly a business alliance.) These booksellers have been involved in alliances with other local businesses to create cross-marketing (coupon books to other local stores), festivals and specials to raise awareness ("buy local" weekends with discounts at independent stores), and educational campaigns (brochures and other materials about the benefits of buying local and the damages of chains).

As Burton puts it, "the climate is right" for buy local campaigns. "The public is receptive. They're tired of strip malls and Wal-Marts." She added that "hundreds" of such campaigns could be launched now, "and bookstores across the country can be branded as the center of the campaign." Robinson agrees: "the public is receptive. The mindset has changed over the years, and now they get it. They understand why buying local is important."

Do you, dear readers, understand why buying local is important? Aside from the economic benefits to your own hometown, patronizing local independent businesses creates a community that just isn't possible at oversized chain stores with short-term employees. It supports an environment where people are able to make a living on a labor of love, where people with skills and knowledge about their product or service (not just about watching the bottom line) can prosper. It allows for human connections and interactions that are less mediated by advertising and sameness. It's a way of learning what's unique about the place where you live. I'm sure, if you think about it, you can think of a dozen reasons more.

I know you can't always shop local. (That's why they're often called "Buy Local First ".) There are times when you just need something right now and your local store doesn't have it, etc. You're not going to get the cold shoulder from us indies for doing what you have to do. But the more people who make the effort to shop local when they can, the better our neighborhoods and communities can be.

I think Buy Local First movements are being led by booksellers because, like your best English teacher, they understand that it's not just about the books. Being involved with literature means engaging with the world, and having your eyes opened to what it can be. Good on these booksellers for acting locally. I'm proud to be a part of the indie revolution, and I can't wait to get started on Buy Local Brooklyn.


Quillhill said...

For those of us interested in working on our own campaign, may we reprint some of your wisdom?

Book Nerd said...

Of course, with my blessing and good wishes! And take advantage of the resources offered by ABA and AMIBA as well. Are there plans for a Buy Local project in Oglesby?

Anonymous said...

A movement has started here in Cambridge, MA and is getting bigger each day it seems. Unfortunately, I feel like so many of the college kids don't see the value of buying local. Too many people have grown up in the past 20 years shopping at chain stores (myself included)---the Gap, Barnes & Noble, Abercrombie & Fitch, etc. For us, it's the norm. Independent stores of all stripes (clothes, food, books, etc.) have disappeared. It's nice to see that people are becoming more aware of the importance of where they spend their money.

Book Nerd said...

I agree with you, at least to a degree -- I'm always distressed when otherwise reasonable folks can't see any reason to shop independent. That habitual chain-shopping is why the educational aspects of Buy Local movements are so important! And I think there is an openness now to the ideas of community, sustainability, authenticity, etc., that's kind of a backlash against years of chain sameness.

Andy Laties, author of REBEL BOOKSELLER and one of the founders of Vox Pop bookstore in Brooklyn, is another inspiration when it comes to this issue -- when he talks about "breaking the chains" of corporate domination of our industry, it's easy to believe it's possible! I hope the Cambridge project gets some good momentum going -- thank for the update!

Anonymous said...

Well -- my wife Chris and I both worked at chainstores before we launched our own bookstore. And my partners at Vox Pop -- Sander Hicks and Holley Anderson, both worked at chains too. Sander worked at Kinko's, and Holley worked at The Bean, a small chain of coffeehouses in New Mexico.

Chainstore jobs are unfortunately dead-end gigs because there are so many fewer managerial opportunities than clerk jobs. But we learn a ton in those gigs -- because we're often hung out to dry by our employers -- solving crises with our people skills, etc.

This means that lots of people get to be good at retail, and then seek out employment in other sectors of the economy, ultimately (Health Care anyone?) -- because there's no way to ADVANCE in retail. The fact that these people have the stamina for working directly with the public doesn't help them make that kind of contribution because those huge conglomerates have got the "serving the public" niche in the economy locked up. Supposedly. The result is that although "retail" could be a terrifically socially involved activity, instead it is forced into a pure-commercialism activity.

And yet the question is: suppose all those chainstore employees did what my wife and I, and Sander and Holley did? SIMULTANEOUSLY. Would this be possible? Could they help each other do this??

This is directly related to the buy locally movement, except it's sort of "work locally" or "produce locally". It ends up being related to Organic Farming, etc. Shorten the distance between producing and consuming.

The best way for people to get into consuming locally is if their WORK lives are also integrated with local life.

Andy Laties