First, a disclaimer. Davey tends to rebuke my criticisms of localism with these words: “But Frank, I don’t know any localist who believes that.” Hopefully I do a better job this time.
Austin recently re-tweeted a link to this, a write-up about an author doing his best to save, or at least “treasure,” local bookstores. For the record, I think this is cool. A good independent bookstore is a wonderful thing. Like many others, I rarely enjoy a visit to Barnes and Noble, Chapters, Books-a-Million, etc. They’re sterile places with a counterfeit sense of familiarity and comfort. Their book selection is rarely interesting, and I generally find their books overpriced. (Though, in their defense, publishers are probably more to blame for that.)
Yet, I confess that I’m tired of hearing people complain that big-box stores like B&N killed the local bookstore. (Or, for that matter, that Amazon is carrying on that trend.) I don’t really believe this storyline, and in the words of the immortal Calvin, I wish they’d shut up and stop whining.
That sounds harsh, I know, so let me explain myself.
I understand that big-box bookstores have often received tax benefits and other such incentives not available to smaller bookstores. And I agree that this is unfair, even wicked. I’m as anti-interventionist as any of you.
But why should this be the last word? Too often, I think that local bookstores use this as a crutch. Instead of thinking, “How can I be better than Barnes & Noble?” they resign themselves to a fate of dying relevancy. “I’ll never compete be able to compete with them!” To give this a concrete example, we tend to assume that You’ve Got Mail captures this scene with truth: The Shop Around the Corner just can’t stand up to Fox Books. It’s impossible. So let’s shed a tear, share stories about our Spanish lovers, and wait for the big bad businessman to bring us flowers.
I also find it odd that in all the articles I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of them), I’ve never seen anyone ask, “What have local bookstores done wrong?” As someone who’d like to start my own little bookstore one day, I’ve got more than a few opinions on this matter; but they’re not founded upon anyone else’s insight. I’d be much more willing to believe the “bad big box store” line if I saw more self-examination on the part of the independent bookstore. People who complain instead of looking to grow usually will only see their problems grow, so it’s no surprise that more local bookstores have closed in the past several years. After all, who wants to go and buy books from someone who’s going to share their gripes with you?
Before you jump all over me and call me a greedy capitalist pig, remember what I said at the beginning: I love a good local bookstore. Really, I do. The trouble is, I don’t believe that a local bookstore is good in and of itself. I’ve been to plenty of bad ones, and a bad local bookstore is much, much worse (imho) than any Barnes & Noble or Borders. Heck, it’s even worse than a Waldenbooks.
I’d love to see local bookstores blossom. And if I ever get a chance to do a book tour, I’d love to do local bookstore stops. But two things need to happen first: one, I have to write something worth reading again, and two, local bookstores need to start viewing their “predicament” as a “challenge.” There are ways around this problem, if only you try and tackle them.
An endnote. I’ve dropped a lot of generalizations. I know this. I did it on purpose. I know there are top-notch local bookstores out there. Good on you, all of you. I wish I could visit you. I just wish you didn’t have so many siblings that are the opposite. That’s really all I’m getting at.