Shelf Life: Second Edition

Why independent bookshops are on the rebound


| Utne Reader September / October 2007



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.'