May 25, 2011
Blame the Bookstore Month
Another week, another round of articles about the death of the independent bookstore. This round has been precipitated by the announcement that the Flying Dragon Bookshop at Bayview & Eglinton will be closing its doors within a month or two, despite having just won the 2011 Libris Award for ‘Specialty Bookseller of the Year’ from the Canadian Booksellers Association. The tone of the response has probably been shaped by Flying Dragon’s assertion that they simply don’t want to adapt – “at the end of the day we realized that for us, it was all about the books and the tactile, sensory experience they [books] provide.” says their blog.
Last week I responded to Natalee Caple’s assertion that clinging to the old conception of “book” is elitist (or at least hegemonic). This week I see similar claims being made by Amy Lavender Harris over at Open Book Toronto in her article “Authors of our own Misfortune: the Death and Afterlife of Bookselling in Toronto“. They both speak of a resistance on the part of booksellers to embrace new technology. Well, I’d like to address a couple of the misconceptions that seem to underline this stance.
1. Independent bookstores in Canada can not sell ebooks.
I’ve said this before and I will say it again. We aren’t resisting ebooks (much). We’re not failing to adapt. We are simply not able to distribute ebooks. Publishers will not sell them to us. Big ebook distribution schemes like Google eBooks don’t have Canadian rights set up yet (and may never). To sell ebooks bookstores and publishers would need to arrive at an agreement as to how to track, sell, and remit for digital rights and so far, it appears to me as if publishers are not putting bringing independents into the loop as a top priority. Amazon, Kobo, Apple and Google, with their internal programmers, have come up with a scheme for them, and publishers simply need to sign on the dotted line. No independent has the resources to develop such a scheme.
2. Believe it or not, not all customers are clamouring for ebooks.
A short anecdote. Last year we had a professor order through us a book for his course, a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories. The only available edition was a cheap, cheap Dover, but it was also available free online. So we ordered far fewer copies of this book than others, thinking students would just read it online or download the ebook. A foolish decision, it turns out, because the students overwhelmingly wanted the “real thing”. It wasn’t the nature of the book that deters customers: it’s the price. When the price is low enough (in this case, less than $3 CDN) they want the real book every time. Converting to a cafe/event space with a few “display copies” of books would not be serving the interests of the customer.
3. “Local” is a geographic term. It has little meaning on the internet.
Everything that makes an independent bookstore great is dependent on meat-space. We curate specific collections tailored to our customers. We provide the service of a conversational, knowledgeable bookseller who knows the stock and can help you find or choose the right book. We bring cultural events into your local neighbourhood.
An independent which goes whole-hog into ebooks isn’t going to be able to offer these things for very long, especially when one of the chief advantages to ebooks is the fact that you can buy them from home, or, really, anywhere you want. I question the value of a “store” which is, essentially, an empty space used for occasional events where a bookseller is made available for advice. Perhaps my customers are unusually skittish, but they want to be left alone to browse and hide in the stacks until they require my advice. If I didn’t offer them books to browse, they’d shop from home. Books have a small mark-up – 20-40%. Driving customers out of the shop would quickly make the space a waste of time and money. Once I am online only, then what? What value am I bringing to my neighbourhood? What makes me different from Amazon?
I am beginning to suspect that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Independent bookstores are a specific business – we are a physical space containing actual humans who sell physical books. Ebook sellers are something else – no space, no humans, and no books. Which is great, but it’s just not the same business. A farmer who decides to sell condos on his land isn’t “adapting”, he’s getting out of the farming business. None of the value of a farmer has been retained in the change.
So, okay, ebooks are fab for a lot of things, like staying in your house, saving your money for some non-book-purchase, and saving shelf-space for some non-book storage. But can we not kid ourselves? There’s nothing to this product or paradigm that benefits someone whose skill, whose vocation, whose livelihood is to know, identify, recommend and sell books. We still have a use, but it’s to offer all those things ebooks don’t require. Maybe the future is better off without this middleman; maybe readers don’t need curators or trusted local experts. That could be. But we can’t be blamed for wanting to maintain our vocations.
ETA: Navneet Alang adds another voice calling for the circumvention of the traditional bookstore. To which I say, the Type/TINARS model is certainly one way to engage in literary culture, but I’d argue that both are supported by a particular set of people. Youngish literary types – writers and publishing folks for the most part or I’ll eat my hat – who enjoy the “scene” and, collectively, can support probably one such store. I’m not convinced the average reader has much interest in carving a social life out of this (hip, trendy) literary scene per se. I certainly don’t. I read books for a lot of reasons, but a big one is because parties and social functions scare the bejeezus out of me and I’m much happier curled up with a book in the company of my family. Again, the skittishness and stoic browsing stance of my regular customers leads me to believe this model would serve, at least, my customers very poorly.