Saturday, November 19, 2005

Comment: My People

So, I somewhat tentatively sent out an email about this blog to a long list of the folks in my address book on Thursday morning. The response already has been embarassingly wonderful. Everyone from my high school English teacher to Larry Portzline of Bookstore Tourism has commented or emailed to say that they're reading and enjoying. And best of all for me, I've heard from a bunch of my fellow booksellers with notes of enthusiasm and encouragement. Thanks, guys.

This last couple of days made me think of a time when I worked in a neighborhood where two independent coffee shops opened up around the same time. (Bear with me, this is relevant in the end.) As things settled out, they ended up serving very different clientele: one was the haunt of the older neighborhood denizens, and one was the hangout of a high-powered telecommuter crowd. But unfortunately, there was an intense amount of unfriendly competition between the two. The proprietors of the two shops were in print as denigrating each other, and they'd make snarky off-hand remarks about the other's place whenever it came up. I happened to like both -- one had better espresso, the other played better music -- but I had to keep my divided loyalty a secret so as not to offend the likeable staff of either place. This was in spite of the fact that both were in competition with any number of Starbucks within walking distance.

In the same neighborhood were two bookshops, less than a block from each other. (I worked at one.) Granted, they'd both been around a long time, so their respective areas of expertise were pretty well delineated. But the amount of cooperation between the two was amazing. We shared catalogs, traded books when our stock ran low, recommended each other for offsite events when we were unavailable, and most importantly, recommended each other to our customers when we didn't have the book they wanted but the other place did. It didn't do either of us any harm, and many people became customers of both shops based on our mutual recommendations.

My point is that the outpouring of support for my little efforts here seems to me to be indicative of a mindset among independent booksellers: we know we are not each others' competition. Our competitors are the chains and the internet, not other independents. Most booksellers seem to have really internalized the realization that the more we support each other, the better things go for all of us. That's why independents have the potential to form such powerful alliances, like the ABA, which can become a voice that publishers and the public can hear. Our collaboration is possible because we know that our unique neighborhood-determined shops mean that we can complement each other and increase the customer base for all independents by recommending each other. More than many businesses, independent bookselling is one in which relationships, not undercutting, are valued as business tools. Duh, that's one of the reasons why I love it.

The practice of recommending other stores -- even calling other stores to see if they have the book a customer is looking for -- is one I like to call the "Macy's-Gimble's Phenomenon," after Kris Kringle's ingenious innovation in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. One of my dreams is that regional bookstores could develop a database of the specialities and expertise of all of the bookstores in their area, so that they would know where to send customers even if they'd never been to the store themselves. There used to be a couple of "books of bookstores" for the New York area, but most are out of print because bookstores open and close and it's hard to stay up to date. I think the task of maintaining a list of independent stores is one which could best be undertaken by the bookstores themselves.

I've started a project recently to try to visit all of the bookstores in the New York area. I don't have a timeline or a specific agenda -- I just want to try to get to all of them and see what's out there. Maybe that will be the first step in developing that database. We'll see what happens, and I'd welcome any comments or suggestions. I'm a little shy, but invigorated to know that some of you are reading now, and I hope to hear from you on this and other issues.

Man, I love my people.