Thursday, February 08, 2007

Small Bookstores Threatened by Online Commerce

Yesterday's "Column One" over at the Los Angeles Times ran a somewhat sad piece on the decline of independent booksellers in the Bay Area. It turns out that some of the most famous book venders in the area -- like the flagship store of Cody's Books in Berkeley -- have closed their doors in recent months as new trends in technology and consumer behavior shake out the industry:

Rising rents and competition from the chains have imperiled independents for years, but San Francisco used to think it was immune. Cody's and other Bay Area stores helped spark the Beat movement, encouraged the counterculture, fueled the initial protests against the Vietnam War. In a region that sees itself as smart and civilized, bookshops were things to be cherished.

No longer, apparently. The stores that are still in business feel compelled to underline that fact.

"Rare but Not Extinct," one proclaimed in a holiday ad. Another, announcing a special sale in a leaflet, felt the need to emphasize, "We're not going out of business."

WHAT'S undermining the stores is a massive shift in buying habits brought about by the Internet. Ordering from, Frank said, has almost become the generic term for book buying.

Technology changes behavior, which reshapes the physical landscape. The era of repertory movie houses playing "Casablanca" and "High Noon" ended with the VCR. The telephone booth was replaced by the beeper, which was made obsolete by the cellphone. And the newspaper is under siege by the Internet's ability to recombine and distribute news without leaving ink on your hands.

"The bookstore as we know it is in dire straits," said Lewis Buzbee, a novelist who spent many years working in the local shops.
Read the entire article. The whole issue of declining independent booksellers has been a particular interest to me and my family (especially my Mom). Some years back, when I was in grad school, Santa Barbara's Earthling Bookstore, a local meeting center for the city's literary community, closed amid competition from national chains, especially Barnes and Noble. There were a number of very critical articles on this in the local press, denouncing the encroachment of the national bookselling predators. One particular point in all this I'll never forget: Earthling had painted murals on its walls of all the great literary novelists -- Faulkner, Hemingway, Poe, and so forth -- and the Barnes and Noble that opened on lower State Street put up nearly identical murals on its wall, which seemed so galling -- they were not only killing off a local business but stealing its signature trademark at the same time. I didn't forgive Barnes for a while, though I'm well past that now, although many local Barnes outlets continue to use those literary murals in their stores.

As for Bay Area book merchants, whenever I'm in San Franciso I try to get over to Berkeley to shop for books. In fact, when my Dad passed away in 2004, my sister -- who's lived in the Bay Area for over 20 years -- had put him up in a local Berkeley hospice, and I visited him a few times while he was there. I stopped by
Moe's Books on one of those visits. I picked up a copy of Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich: A New History, and Charles Payne's, I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississipi Freedom Struggle.

The Times piece cited above closes by remarking that booksellers, including Gary Frank of San Francisco's
The Booksmith, are looking to find innovative ways of keeping bookstores vital and profitable in the age of online commerce. I often think to myself nowadays that I don't know what I'd do without bookstores, especially for hanging out, browsing, reading, having coffee, and purchasing things. Barnes and Noble, despite my initial dismay at its capitalist predations, is my favorite place to frequent.

Great bookstores do continue to thrive in other areas as well, for example,
Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara is a tight, compact bookstore with an incredibly rich stock of books of all types, from children's books to the most obscure academic tomes. Vroman's Books in Pasadena is still going strong last I heard -- I bought Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism there a couple of years back. (The king of independent bookstores is, of course, Powell's in Portland, Oregon, which is a must see phenomenon for book lovers.) So I'm hoping that these types of vendors (especially the smaller ones) find and maintain their niche. Online booksellers are great, but if that's all we had I think we'd be a little less off for it.

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