Monday, July 30, 2007

Independent/small stores

Inspired by an article on whether 'arry Potter type bestsellers are killing the small book stores, and another on small camera stores, I wonder:

When people describe small, independent stores, with their charm and interested and knowledgeable owners, they sound great and I mourn them. But when I think back, I don't really recall any such stores! Even the smallest ones, with poor selection, don't seem to be (or have been) staffed or owned on average by people with a huge interest or great knowledge about books or photography, or whatever. So if their selection is smaller than big stores or online stores, and there's no more knowledge or help to be found, why the urgency to have them survive?


Anonymous said...

I have seen some good independent bookstores, and there's one locally, but I think the answert is; the personal touch. Many people want to buy their books, camera equipment etc. from someone they know and trust as a persion, rather than a faceless, anonymous store or wenbsite where you rarely see the same person twice in succession, if at all.

Final Identity said...

In publishing it's called "handselling," the art of recommending something to a customer on the basis of the bookseller's personal ability to empathize with a customer's interests and growth in reading. To me, what is disappearing from the bookselling and publishing scene, is the intellectuality. If you were always a romance novel reader, with an odd pulp detective or chick-lit title thrown in, and you only snuck into highbrow for your mandatory college English classes, then you won't see much difference between 1970 and 2010. Books is just commodities, the wages of books is price. But if you like to think ...

I also say, the change isn't because of things like the Harry Potter pheonomenon, as Eolake mentions the article discusses. I think the change is more along the lines of "corporatification." Borders and Barnes and Noble can make such demands on the shippers and middle-men that titles get squeezed into the blockbuster zone. Either it sells like Harry Potter, or it doesn't get printed at all. Same phenomenon was happening in pop music production, too, before MP3 files changed all that.

Maybe the e-book will help? I frankly can't stand reading a "good book" on a screen.

There's a lot more to this, but I'll hazard an example. In Toronto, there was an annoying little local's cafe called Dooney's on Bloor Street. You could go in and get ignored by the dirty illiterate wait staff for hours. Angry Hungarian men would spit on the floor. The formerly trendy art-deco chrome bar and backsplash had rusted beyond recognition. The management owned the building and basically kept the cafe in business in order to provide a living room for themselves and their uncles and cousins over from the Old Country. They were one of the few places near my apartment that sold sandwiches on the cheap.

Then Starbuck's threatened to move in across the street. Thousands of neighborhood denizens came out to protest the "commodification" and "Americanization" of the cafe scene on Bloor Street. People who had never patronized Dooney's bemoaned the disappearance of old neighborhood haunts. Meanwhile, Dooney's owner was on trial for raping one of his wait staff who, it turned out, had been shipped over against her will from Hungary two years earlier as indentured labor. In the process of contacting the police, her illegal immigration status was discovered and she was deported. Absent an accuser, the owner went scott free. I got mild food poisoning from Dooney's.

Dooney's is now back in business on Bloor Street, and the protests successfully prevented Starbuck's from moving in to that neighborhood. I would have liked to believe that "mom and pop" stores were a better choice on all occasions, but frankly I can't support the lack of accountability that the Dooney's owners enjoyed for so long.

I wonder if corporate commodification isn't just another step in unifying the world under one brand name banner. Some day we'll all be wearing, eating, drinking, and listening to, Samsung-Monsanto-Beatrice-Coke products. Is this necessarily bad? Or the alternative good? Just unifying manufacturing standards might improve on the world's illiteracy, poverty, sanitation, famine ...

But can it be done to books? Food and water are one thing -- change the fact that Greeks used to eat fish and olives for breakfast and now eat corn flakes, and you perhaps create a duller but no less nutritious world. Books are entirely another thing -- change the fact that Greeks used to read Homer and Aristophanes and now read Harry Potter or, worse, Barbara Cartland, and you perhaps create a much worse world ...

eolake said...

"Maybe the e-book will help? I frankly can't stand reading a "good book" on a screen."

I think a good e-book reader (I doubt the Sony one is it) will help enormously. It's silly to print and ship text.

And print-on-demand has already gone a long way.

Final Identity said...

Yes, print-on-demand is already the de-facto standard for most books that "go to" paperback. (I quote the "go to" because the old model, of releasing an expensive hardback and only later printing in paperback is already defunct; most books start as paperbacks, even those that also start as hardbacks.) The first few generations of p-o-d books looked trashier by comparison to standard paperbacks, but nowadays you can't even tell. So, instead of investing in a stack of paper and a long time at a press, publishers can simply get the PDF ready at their supplier and then funnel orders one by one to the printer. Each time someone wants a book, the printing company makes one copy.

But still, I'm going to have to chime in, that although economics have made some things faster, slower, more economical, more expensive, etc. etc., there's still a rather large negative impact on general intellectuality, that I feel is happening. As part and parcel of the dumbing down of the world, to the point that someone with a "college degree" is said to be "well educated" merely because he has taken three hotel management courses, so too the assessment and imprimatur of intelligent editorial processes are being lost. The peer-review process, and the expert review requirements, of getting your book into print are fading.

This is a good thing for anyone whose ideas were previously marginalized. But it's not necessarily a good thing for the world at large, which right now is learning rather rapidly to take any idea as a publishable idea. There are some ideas that deserve to be marginalized. Who decides? It used to be a hegemony of rather similar privileged people in positions of power. Now, it's tending toward just a question of "voting", such that whichever book gets more "hits" is the one that gets more published and more read. Neither model is ideal, each with major weaknesses. But forced to choose, I definitely prefer the former.

Alex said...

I think e-Books will be good when we get the e-Paper we've been promised.

This is akin to LCD technology. Imagine an A4 (letter paper) sized LCD which relies on reflective, rather than backlit technology. Add to this some NVRAM (flash), and make it flexible.

I saw a sample in a magazine or TV show. It is still "not there" but it seems like the most natural way to go.

A shining example of this technology was in Firefly in the episode "Shindig".

I don't know how close the technology really is. I've seen static LCD displays, and they are good, but not flexible and lightweight.

I guess we'll be using e-notepads like the ones in Star Trek Next Genreation. Oh wait, they're PDA's! But they are a credible size.

So what do you think to the audio books which are a single function media player. For the same price as the CD's you get the book in a player with distinctive cover. Interesting way to slow copying of the book.

Alex said...

We used to have an independet local toy shop. They catered for the needs of those which could not be satisfied by Toys R Us. They tended to the nicer more creative and lower volume toys. Brio, Plan Toys, Galt etc. It was a good store, and we got to know the owner very well. I went there for 14 years. He had to close the doors this year. Everyone was going to WalMart. In Chester, my home town, two of the independent toy stores are still going strong. They have the tourist trade. Chester is like a huge shopping mall with Tudor, Victorian and Roman architecture.

Anyway. It's curious to note that even Toys R Us is suffering to the big box stores, especially Walmart. Toys R Us used to have volume, low price but still maintained variety. The variety seems lacking now.

As for book stores. I like 2nd hand. They can survive in some areas, but it's down to the locals. Our independent 2nd hand went. Now I have to go to Berkeley for a good choice.

For new books, I've always gone to WHSmiths, Borders or Barnes and Noble. For peculiar stuff, just ask and they'll get it. There is a good chance, if it's in print, hte big stores have it. Borders Express and Waldenbooks have less readily available, but more than the grocery store.

People who work in book stores tend to be readers. It's the hardware stores that I prefer the smaller ones. I can get in and out of OSH with 80% of what I want in 10 minutes. My local ACE, a franchise, is very traditional, and family run. The franchise gets them the full product range, the owners care, and provide a service. We do have barn of contractor suppliers, Home Depot and Lowes. These places put aircraft hangers to shame, and are great if you are building a house or three. But for Joe public, it takes 10 minutes to find someone who can't help you. Now Lowes is competing against Home Depot they seem to have added people, but still not enough. Indeed half the registers are self serve, no humans there at all!

So I'm all over on chain versus independent. A caring Franchisee seems to be the best of both worlds.

Pascal said...

I agree, Barbara Cartland is far worse than Harry Potter could ever be.
Say, just yesterday, in a Beirut bookstore in the middle of the chiite zone, I saw arabic translations of Harry Potter (books 1 to 6, the official edition) in prominent display. And nobody was protesting outside that these books were against God or stuff like that. I'd say this is definitely a progress. And I read that Hassan Nasrallah himself has no objection to fine classic erotic literature, including a book recently banned in Saudi Arabia.
There is still hope that this little store called Lebanon might end up better than Dooney's.

Barbara Cartland should be portrayed in the Shrek movies, as the accomplice of the very dangerous feminine cult leader named "Prince Charming", the same one feeding garbage to young girls' minds worldwide. :-P

Michael Burton said...

Years ago I went to a local Mom and Pop bookstore and picked up a biography of Albert Einstein. I took it to the counter to pay for it, and the elderly woman who operated the bookstore with her husband looked at the book and said, "Oh, Einstein! He was a great man!"

I nodded agreement. She said she had worked for a time as a private nurse to Mrs. Einstein. She told a few stories of Professor Einstein's absent-mindedness, and attributed it to the fact that his mind wasn't on the ordinary day-to-day things that concern us ordinary mortals.

Her stories didn't make Einstein sound very likeable at all, but she seemed to consider him almost a saint. Her memories made the book that much more interesting to me.

So I miss the independent bookstore where the workers love books and have lived interesting lives.

Final Identity said...

I once made the mistake of asking for the music to be turned down of an employee at a major chain bookstore. Rosemary Clooney was bellowing out "Hey MAMBO! Mambo Itali-A-no!" at the top of her lungs. It was an attractive song, as far as American show tunes go, but it didn't seem approprite for a location where people might try to ... you know ... read quietly. I asked her whether or not maybe something without words could be played. Something in which the words of the music didn't distract from the words on the page.

The staff member, whom I found out was a friendly former librarian and had worked with books for forty years, said that she wasn't authorized to do anything about that because it was the major corporation head office which made those decisions. Nearby, a young man overheard our conversation. He rushed over, this pencil-necked adolescent geek, and interrupted us. I am still at pains to understand how he overheard us through "Hey MAMBO!" but over he came. He was about seventeen, I guess.

"Why does everyone demand such unreasonable things! Don't they understand? We have a BOOK STORE to run! We can't be worried about something as silly as WORDS WORDS WORDS!"

In one fell swoop he appalled his staff, insulted his customer, and abandoned his business. Stunning that the kindly librarian had to report to such an idiot.