By Steve Weddle
A few years ago I was at a newspaper conference at which a speaker was PowerPointing up pie charts about how radio wasn’t really going to kill newspapers. Maybe it was television or the webernet that wasn’t going to kill us.
“Think about the monks and their illuminated manuscripts. If their job had been putting ink on paper, Gutenberg would have put the church out of business. But that wasn’t their job. Their job was bringing The Word of The Lord to mankind. And whether it’s gilded artwork in books or text messages on your phone, the church is still in business.”
Heck, unless you’re able to piss gasoline and fart AK47s, you’re probably having money troubles.
In the newspaper world, we had to get back to what it is that we do – delivering the news to people. The job is to get information to the people, whether by an inky page or a screen on your iPad or a message on your phone.
A dude asked a teenager where he goes to get his news. Some study was trying to determine the “source” kids were using. “Where do I go?” The kid seemed puzzled. “I don’t ‘go’ anywhere. If something is important, it’ll find me.” Which is exactly what newspapers must do. You have to get the news to people. People have stopped coming to newspapers for news. Newspapers have to focus on what they do, not how they do it.
Readers want the story. They want the experience. Hardback. Paperback. Ebook. Those are just the delivery mechanism for the story, the experience.
Bookstores and newspapers deliver information, experience. You go to the bookstore, not for the thing, but for what’s in the thing. What the thing delivers.
And bookstores, especially independent bookstores, are like the church, too. Many of their supporters believe that the best way to get people into the building is to use guilt.
Look, I am not responsible for their shitty business plan. Or their shitty distribution. Or their shitty deal with publishers. Buy-backs. Remainders. Deep discounts.
I understand why people want to hold on to this idea of a bookstore, of Meg Ryan’s mom reading to children on the floor of Ye Olde Bookshoppe Around The Corner. Of Tom Hanks and Dabney Coleman coming in and putting the sweet lady out of business. It’s a romantic-comedy. Romance. Comedy. And Parker Posey. Huzzah. It’s admittedly comforting to buy into the romantic idea. Of how things were. Of how it was better “back then.” Of how a bookshoppe is the anchor to a community. Dances around the May Pole and Victory Gardens and Debutantes and the Confederate Flag and Daughters of the American Revolution.
Let’s be clear about this. If people continue to think of bookstores as something from the past that we need to save, we’re all completely screwed.
An independent bookstore is not the endangered Fliffle Flower. Please, please stop making this your Cause of the Week. Please stop handing out “Save Our Store” flyers.
Look, I know you tried that with the “Wood You Save Me?” campaign to keep that big oak tree safe from the bypass. Honestly, that was really cool. I like trees, too. And the bake sale and getting Gary’s Midnight Ramblers to play the free concert at the Safeway parking lot probably helped raise a bunch of money for the lawyers to fight the right-of-way procurement from the state.
Don’t you people have a PTA meeting to get to? Shouldn’t you be organizing a committee to get my kids to sell your cookie dough at $17 a roll so that we can get whatever the hell it is we need this year on the playground?
A bookstore is not a cause. It’s not. It’s a store. That Sells. Books. Books that deliver scares and romance, fist fights and car chases. Entertainment. Information. The soul-crushing sadness in a Dennis Lehane book. The other-wordly coolness in a Tasha Alexander historical. The humor and thrills in a Brad Parks book.
Do not treat independent bookstores like charity cases. They’re better than that. They are the ass kickers of publishing. They’re not the family of nine who all lost their home and their puppy in a fire.
Fountain Bookstore in Richmond. Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis. Murder By The Book in Houston. Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, PA. Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. All over the country, small bookstores are kicking ass, doing what they do best -- what the big box stores and online-only sites can't. Book signings, sure. But they’re hosting book groups. They’re places to talk about books, about reading. They’re the community centers for reading. And I love reading. It’s what I do.
And so many of the indies have partnered with Google to sell ebooks right from their own websites. These stores are embracing the “new technology” instead of hiding from it, because they realize it’s about the story, not the ink on paper. If you want ebooks, your local indie can sell you ebooks. If your local independent is hanging up posters saying that ebooks will kill everything, you should tag that bookstore as a favorite in your GPS doohickey. You’ll get great deals, because that store will have a going-out-of-business sale soon. Yes, even though you try to save it with a letter-writing campaign.
See, small bookstores won’t “survive” because you raised $500 for them in your stupid bake sale. Sorry, I meant to say “thoughtful” bake sale. I mean, your hearts are in the right place. You’re just ruining everything. And here’s why.
Your actions are focusing on dumb crap.
“Small bookstores may charge twice as much, but they offer helpful recommendations.”
I get book recommendations from so many places now, why would I pay $28 at an independent instead of $12 for the exact same book? Same binding. Same words. Same smell. “Add in the shipping,” you say. Uh, no. I have the Amazon Prime for free, which includes free two-day shipping. Most of the time, it’s one-day shipping. So I can get into my car and drive an hour to the local indie or order online for free? Heck, now I have to add in five bucks for gas if I shop local.
You can’t focus on price. You can’t say “Yes, it’s twice the price, but…” See, you say “twice the price” and I’ve stopped listening. “It’s twice the price, but you get free Swedish Fish for life.” Whatever. I stopped listening at the comma.
You have to look at what bookstores do well. The signings. The meeting other readers. Meeting writers. The events. Hell, maybe the indie shop has a Local Mystery Authors theme week. Each night, a different mystery writer from the state. How cool would that be? Amazon can’t do that. You can’t meet Ellen Crosby at the Amazon store, can you?
And the Amazon recommendations? If I like this Jim Butcher book I might also like this other Jim Butcher book? I think the woman at my local shoppe does a much better job, thank you, very much.
Focus on this. Focus on the good. Not the "even though it's twice the money" sort of thing. This can't be an argument about price. I'm not paying $30,000 for a Ford Focus just because the local dealer is good at her recommendations. "Steve, I know how you love blue interiors and an auxiliary input jack." Look, when you want to look at what local bookstores do well, you're looking at value, not price.
“You’ll miss the independent bookstore when it’s gone because you’ll be stuck with Amazon.”
Again, this is a shitty business plan. It was a bad idea when newspapers tried it, too. “Don’t you miss the neighborhood bakery?” Yeah. But the old lady in the back of the place there made some friggin amazing pies. The difference between Mrs. Mangianni’s pecan pie and Mrs. Smith’s is the difference between the Arsenal Gunners and the Cooke County Duckies. The difference between my copy of Wallace Stroby’s newest that I got from Amazon and the copy you got from Meg Ryan’s shoppe? I paid nine bucks and had it at my front door in a day. You went to the local independent, which had to order it for you. For $26.
You can’t sell people a negative. You can’t tell them that if they don’t pay $26 for a hardback that they’ll be stuck paying nine.
See, when something is gone, you learn to live without it. When my subscription to Curmudgeon Weekly lapsed, I realized I could live without it. I got the articles online. Sure, I had to click through an ad for The Number One Tip To Remove Belly Fat And Whiten Your Teeth That Doctors And The Liberal Media Don’t Want You To Know, but it worked out fine.
The “you’ll be sorry when your subscription expires” argument? Yeah. I was. I got over it. Stop selling the independent bookstore as an alternative to Amazon. It isn’t. The indie isn’t an alternative to anything. No one can do what they do. You have to sell what it is the local bookstore does, not what it can’t do.
And why did the local bakery close? When I lived on the Chesapeake Bay, we had a town full of these little cutsie shops. Their hours were Wednesday through Saturday, Noon until 5 p.m. -- "And By Chance."
Two of these were bookstores. They're closed now that the town has a Walmart. Walmart doesn't open "By Chance." Walmart wants to be around next year.
“Bookstores bring in local tax dollars, so shop locally instead of at Amazon.”
Seriously? That’s what you got? Danny’s Dildo Emporium on West Highland employs 19 full-timers, while Meg Ryan’s Indie Store employs three, counting Meg. You want more tax dollars, go buy a bag full of dildos.
Who brings in more sales tax to the town? Meg’s shoppe or Barnes and Noble?
And weren’t you the same mini-van full of people parading against Walmart last month? If the argument is “Independent bookstores should be supported because they bring in local tax money,” then you have a few problems. First, that’s a passive sentence. Clean up your writing, dillweed. Second, the guy who lives three doors down from me works for UPS. The online retailers keep him pretty busy. Third, how much tax revenue exactly does the Meg Ryan Independent generate?
Careful. It’s a trap. If you say it’s a nice hunk of money, then I’ll say bookstores aren’t in danger, so shut up. If you say it isn’t much money, then I’ll say “then who the hell cares, so shut up”?
So stop trying to guilt people into spending more than they can afford on books. Stop telling me I'm an evil bastard for reading on my Kindle, for buying a Bargain Book at B&N, for not "supporting" the indie cause, not "patronizing" my local.
Every time I visit a small, independent bookstore, their dedication and passion come blazing through those kick-ass display windows full of books I should be reading.
Focus on what the small bookstores do so well. Ever try to browse for books at Amazon? Ever try to ask a clerk there for help?
While you're holding bake sales and blathering about how independent bookstores aren't surviving, so many of them are focused on what they do best -- and thriving.