Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Comment: On Misperception and Making The World

Can I rant for just a tiny minute?

I guess I must have been actually reading back posts of my favorite blogs, because I came across this one on the blog of Lance Fensterman, conference director extraordinaire (BEA *and* Comic Con -- that's right, baby!) and generally funny and observant guy. He's got a link to this story in the MinnPost about Birch Bark Books in Minneapolis, owned by well-to-do and respected author Louise Erdrich but apparently not doing terribly well financially. Here's the opener:

"Most writers believe in independent bookstores. But is a belief in past worlds enough to bring them back to life? The answer is yes, if author and store owner Louise Erdrich has anything to say about it.
The renowned author of "Love Medicine" and "Beet Queen" opened BirchBark Books in 2001, while independent booksellers everywhere were closing. The 800-square-foot shop, on a quiet street in Minneapolis' Kenwood neighborhood, is a proper book lover's hideaway, with reading spaces, a knowledgeable staff and a lovingly handpicked inventory.
Naturally, it has been losing money since the day it opened."

"Naturally," huh? Thankfully, several booksellers, including Erdrich, take the journalist to task for not only the tone of the article, but a number of factual errors and misquotes. The first commenter expresses my primary objection, and if you'll allow me to take off from there, here's my rant:

When a restaurant closes, it doesn't usually occur to anyone to say, "well, that's because people just don't go to restaurants to eat anymore," or "this just reflects the sad decline of the food industry, and we should all be better people and go out to eat more." More likely, their comments reflect on what might have caused the failure of this specific business: a less-than-prime location, poor business planning, sub-par service, unexciting food, or just bad luck. Yes, everyone knows that lots of restaurants close -- but lots also open. Success and failure happen on the individual business level, not on the industry level -- there's no shortage of restaurants, and many still provide wonderful experiences while remaining profitable ventures.

So why, I ask you, is it that whenever a bookstore closes, it's because bookstores are a thing of the past, and no one buys books or read anymore, and those who do buy their books online, and if we were all better people we would support those quaint indie stores (whether or not they're doing a good job)? And why, when a new bookstore opens, is it seen as a wonderfully naive venture, suitable for Don Quixotes or those who have money to "prop up" such a business? And why, when a bookstore is successful and has been around for 3, 10, 30 years, is it always a surprising exception to an otherwise sad state of affairs?

I've been lucky enough to be the subject of a couple of interviews lately (I'll let you know when they run) because of my PowerUp win, and I chortle secretly at the chance to "spread the gospel" to interviewers about this widespread misapprehension. One reporter asked me flat-out why I thought it was a good idea to open a bookstore in Brooklyn, when everyone knows independent bookstores are on the decline.

"Actually, that is incorrect," I said, and talked for a bit about the 115 new stores that opened last year and the 97 the year before that, about the drop in indie booktore numbers in the 1990s when chains and big box stores rose to prominence, but the rising numbers since then as new indie bookstore owners, savvy about the new realities of retail, open and prosper.

"Wow, I guess the 90s was when I stopped paying attention," said the admirably humble reporter.

It's a new world, and not in the way you often hear it. Click here for a publisher talking about having his eyes opened by the resurgent indies at Winter Institute. Tom Hallock of Beacon Books writes:

"Like any good publisher I had come to Winter Institute to promote our books and authors. I came away in awe of the vision, values and commitment that are transforming this organization and its members. In finding their place in their local communities, they have also found their place in the world --and we are all the richer for it."

And here are two booksellers who express my point even better. Karl Pohrt of eminent bookstore Shamen Drum writes on his MySpace blog about witnessing a frustrating presentation about "the future of books":

"The speakers talk about their "fierce attachment" to the "lovely culture" of books, using words like "old" and "charming" and "enchanting". They talk about their "deep affinity for the physical book" and mention the smell and feel of books. They talk about the "bittersweet aspect" of what is about to happen.
Then the vocabulary switches and the beloved old uncle is hustled off stage. It is "inevitable" that the vast majority of reading will be done on digital devices. The speakers say things like "Kindle is really pretty cool" and "on-line social networks will have to substitute for the pleasure of bookstores" because we're going to have to "forget about bookstores, they're not going to be around." Instead of lamenting this loss, he tells us "we should focus on the positive side." Oh, maybe some small independent bookstores might still survive as gathering places for people who love the physical book.
The reason this bothers me is that if an audience takes the speaker too seriously, it will establish the boundaries for what people imagine is possible in their futures. I don't think this is such a good thing."

And on the Rediscovered blog, Bruce has discovered and been inspired by Andy Laties' Rebel Bookseller (one of my own inspirations), and he quotes his somewhat counterintuitive response to conventional wisdom:

"The point is, you can focus on the fact that your independant bookstore is doomed and then let this reality prevent you from launching the thing. Or you can focus on your doom and use this foreknowledge to help you plan for your business's reincarnation.

That's what the Buddhists call death energy. Every moment, you think about your possibly imminent death. This gives you the courage to take chances. After all, what's the point in fear or delay? You might not live ten more seconds" (p. 33)

As Karl concludes (in a quotation from a book of poems), "The world you have to live in is / The world that you have made." Not to get all The Secret on you, but the way we think about things affects the way they are.

Some bookstores fail. Some bookstores succeed. But the indie bookstore business is not doomed, not at the moment. Restaurants still exist because people gotta eat, and they love eating well and in a beautiful place. And books are like food, aren't they? Hooray for the bookstores that feed us well.

I'd love to hear what you think -- your own stories of misperceptions, exceptions, or change. Do comment if you have the time.


Lance Fensterman said...

I love it when you rant!

Levi Stahl said...

I think that narrative was also determined in the 90s by the comments of some booksellers themselves, who, understandably, preferred to think that their loss of their livelihood (and, often, their passion) was due to failures on the part of the market, not failures on their part.

But for attentive observers, the past decade has made clear that well-run independent bookstores can still thrive. Good for you for fighting to get that word out there--and good luck demonstrating the new reality.

Anonymous said...

Preach it!

As a single woman who is opening her own store(!) in a few months...I am going to NEED my bookstore to make a profit so I can pay my own bills. This makes me vulnerable to the Chicken Little fear mongering - but it also pushed me to come up with ideas that'll make my store, and my financial future, better.

Like dusting off the law license so I can write wills and fix speeding tickets for extra income. What a way to support your neighborhood bookstore - with your DUI!

P. J. Grath said...

Amen all the way! Thirteen or fourteen years ago, when my bookstore was 40 miles south of where it is now, in the metropolis of Traverse City, Michigan, I went to the local community college where an auditorium was filled with people who had braved the weather to come see and hear a world-famous writer talk about how we would all soon be staying home and "meeting" in virtual space. Well, we could have done it then. He could have been on television, or the college could have set up a teleconference, saving him the travel from Texas. People want to get together, face to face, and people want to have and hold books, and my bookstore is 15 years old this year, and I've never had a trust fund. Go, girl!

Anonymous said...

Well, our ace is us, the booksellers. We may close a store, but then we open a store.

At the moment I'm in rapid negotiations to open another bookstore (I currently help operate two completely different, unrelated ones simultaneously) -- and the funniest thing is I just found out yesterday that on this new store's future cultural-institution-partner has a board of directors on which sits a key guy who himself used to run the programming at a bookstore that used to be across the street from the bookstore I owned way back in the early 90s, in Chicago. We're all still alive after all, although both those bookstores have long since closed. And we're still on point.

Any given bookstore is simply the place where some booksellers are doing our thing right now. So it is pretty funny how when a bookstore closes there's all this stuff about how "a bookstore has died" because of course the bookstore was merely an artifact of the activity of a bookseller, who presumably is generally still alive and will be kicking once she gets the wind back into her sails.

kookaburra said...

Oh, yes--please rant, especially when it means straightening out people's misperceptions on indy bookstores!

Hugh Ryan said...

Part of the doom-and-gloom about independent bookstores, I think, has to do with a misunderstanding - or a refusal to understand - about the reason that bookstores succeed. It isn't just commerce and point-of-sale. We live in a culture that is highly suspicious of reading as an activity. It's considered solitary, intellectual, and downright misanthropic. The bookstore, in this view, merely exists to deal crack to addicts.

The social nature of literature - the pleasure of browsing, chatting, hearing works read aloud, etc. - goes unspoken because non-readers don't know it exists.

In this view, why would anyone choose to go to a store when they can just order off the internet?

While some social functions can be duplicated on the internet, they will necessarily be different. Not better or worse, but (hopefully) complimentary to those offered by bookstores.

Great blog, btw.

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