Shelf Life: Second Edition

Why independent bookshops are on the rebound

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When I visit a bookstore for the first time, I promptly canvass the staff picks to establish which employee's taste best matches my own. Messy handwriting always endears, as does the occasional gold star sticker or cleverly decorated notecard. A few years ago, I bought what is now one of my most oft-borrowed books, V.S. Naipaul's Between Father and Son: Family Letters, because the accompanying blurb made a strange reference to my then-favorite novel, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (a connection I'm not sure was apropos, come to think of it).

I recalled this habit while I was watching director Jacob Bricca's 2006 documentary Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore, in which independent merchants speak of being 'married' to their shops; delight in the bustling, chatty crowds that transform their shelf-lined aisles into a 'little city'; and thrive on 'showing someone something they didn't know they needed.'

The film cuts to the distinctions between the business of big-box bookstores and the craft of bookselling: personal attention, community involvement, long-run devotion to the cause of literature, and commitment to local authors and small presses. All distinctions that are, if the rhetoric of all the 'buy local' campaigns is to be believed, increasingly important to a growing contingent of people.

According to the American Booksellers Association, the trade organization for independent booksellers, more than 200 member stores opened in 2005 and 2006. A May 2007 report by Civic Economics, a national consulting firm, found that independent bookstores make up more than half of the market share in the San Francisco area.

'There are still a lot of customers who want a more specialized and smaller shopping experience,' says Hans Weyandt, co-owner of cozy neighborhood shop Micawber's Books in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the shelves are stocked with books by local authors and presses. (Minnesotans are fiercely loyal to their artists and writers, which is why almost all independent bookstores in Minneapolis and St. Paul are sure to include staff pick or display cases featuring homegrown talent.)

Unlike chains such as Barnes & Noble, the owners aren't paid hefty display allowances by big publishers to place certain books by the door or at the cash register. As one bookshop owner notes in Indies Under Fire, what you see at one Borders--say, the arrangement of books on the paperback-fiction table--is what you see at all of them. 'It's not an expression of a particular community,' he says. 'It's a national expression.'

While larger concerns won't explicitly exclude titles from smaller presses, they don't give them much of a chance, either. Because the average Barnes & Noble superstore is 25,000 square feet and holds 60,000 to 200,000 titles, it matters which few books are prominently displayed. Most small presses can't afford front-and-center placement, so while their books may be in stock, they're less likely to be picked up.

Smaller shops invite idle perusal, impromptu conversation, and aimless aisle-trolling. Many stores--including St. Paul's Common Good Books, recently opened by author and radio host Garrison Keillor--practice the art of hand-selling, which involves employees showing customers a book they've been enjoying and, they hope, convincing them to buy it. At Back Pages Books in Waltham, Massachusetts, the owner is trying to use hand-selling, in person and online, to help find a U.S. publisher for a novel about Zionist terrorists in Brooklyn--a book that is already available in Canada.

Meantime, Larry Portzline, a writer who's in the process of launching the National Council on Bookstore Tourism, works with regional booksellers' associations to organize indie bookstore tours, including an outing to beach-town bookshops sponsored by the Southern California Booksellers Association.

The last decade has been a challenge for indies, to be sure, but those that have weathered the storm are employing promising strategies. Additional book clubs, author events, and stronger online presence have made many shops more impressive and more engaging. They're not, as one bookseller suggests in Indies Under Fire, 'just a soft spot in people's hearts.'


From the Stacks...

The June 2007 issue (#8.75) of Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore! features stories about crime in Charm City. Many contributors matter-of-factly recount car or home break-ins, some of which are ultimately foiled by inept criminals or gutsy bystanders. I get the impression that very little actually surprises the average Baltimore resident, though Ben Robinson does seem mildly freaked out by a confrontation in which a homeowner throws dumbbells at a fleeing burglar. When one hits the thief in the back of the head, he runs off and returns a few minutes later 'wielding a MACHETE.' Even in Baltimore, a machete still is cause for capital letters. $3 for each issue from William P. Tandy, Box 11064, Baltimore, MD 21212; www.eightstonepress.com.

Elvis Road can be unfolded into 24 feet of densely illustrated art-book joy; it's possible to read it in its more compact form, but I recommend letting it take over your hallway or living room for a few hours (or a few days). Swiss artists Xavier Robel and Helge Reumann have crammed line drawings of peculiar characters and scenes into every square inch of the book, which by the publisher's count includes 526 corporate billboards, 189 religious figures, and 25 parade floats (in addition to 8,433 characters and 3,546 vehicles). The longer you focus on any one character--say, the giant steak on the roof of a Steak House building who's beating up a carrot, a tomato, and what looks to be a bell pepper, while an onion scampers down the stairs--the more strange connections you can forge with nearby oddities (on the third floor, there seems to be a wrestling match between a carrot and a smaller steak; the carrot is winning). $24.95 from Buenaventura Press, Box 23661, Oakland, CA 94623; www.buenaventurapress.com.

The writer Daniel Alarc--n introduces a phenomenal section on Peruvian literature in the latest issue of the two-year-old literary journal A Public Space. The fiction and photography, and an interview with prominent novelist Miguel Gutierrez, address Peru's violent past as part of the 'artistic recovery' taking place in the country today. Julio Duran's 'To Burn the City' is particularly stirring. His character undergoes a slow process of politicization, which quickly speeds up when he discovers political slogans: 'A hundred loose phrases that arrived in my anxious brain like sharp reprimands. Rejecting them would have meant rejecting myself.' The issue also includes poetry, essays, a short graphic story, and quite a few impressive fiction pieces that run the gamut from established writers (Jonathan Lethem) to debuts (a lovely piece by Leslie Jamison). $36/yr. (4 issues) from 323 Dean St., Brooklyn, NY 11217; www.apublicspace.org.


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