Why do all the ladies of my parish bake cupcakes once a month and sell them to each other?
The writer Sarah Callender (good hat) was coming awfully clean. She wrote:
I have bought many, many books on Amazon. Please know my head is low and my cheeks are red as I admit this to you.
This, as a confessional, sits well beside such soul-searing lines as I used to hear congregations belt out in chancel-flattening unison:
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
Told you I was a minister’s son. That’s actually from the Book of Common Prayer. Episcopalian, not Methodist. I’d say Daddy was catholic in these matters, but that confuses people who don’t know Catholic from catholic.
Let’s try it. Will you take the beat from me?
We have taken advantage of free shipping with Amazon Prime; we have wallowed in history’s best customer service and algorithmically low-balled prices, while partaking of the luscious fruit of fabulous searchability and nearly instant downloads onto our Kindles; we have ordered those things we didn’t need instead of the portable prayer-kneelers we should have been paying $3.99 to have shipped overnight, same-day availability in certain areas.”
Callender’s post, headlined Imagine Saving a Life: An Indie Bookstore Pledge, is inspired, it seems, by a near-missionary zeal for drawing a line between rightful behavior and patronage of Amazon.
She declares her willingness to “do my part to save the lives of independent bookstores.” And, in what I believe is a completely genuine statement of hope, she wants us all to do the same.
So will you, too, make a pledge to buy one book per month from an indie bookstore? AND will you convince someone else to do the same? If you do that, and if your friends convince their family and friends to do the same, and so on and so on, we will pump enough life into the independent bookstores that are the lifeblood of our community.
Turner headlined his post The Future of the End of Bookstores. In it, this longtime staunch ally of bookstores wrote of how he’s “discouraged, depressed actually, by the lack of innovative thinking” among bookstore people.
Immediately, Turner had blow-darted the Amazon-as-bogeyman approach so many well-intentioned bookstore lovers, like Callender, seem to think is correct.
The general attitude among indie booksellers is to do whatever they can to discourage their customers from buying e-books from Amazon.
- Additionally, the Huffington Post followed the Kepler’s exercise with an interactive (of course) list, How To Save Bookstores: 28 Ideas From Existing Locations, no byline offered — divine inspiration, apparently.
- And Ron Charles wrote a three-part series on the Kepler’s effort, starting with How to save an indie bookstore: Day 1.
And here was Callender:
I understood that in getting lazy and cheap in my book buying, I had forgotten the magic of a bookstore. My children had forgotten it too. Shame on me.
Another thing ministers’ kids can spot around a corner: guilt.
Guilt is one slippery weapon in the arsenal of the righteous. It tends to blow up in the faces of the faithful. Scriptural soot. All over the place. Here is Skipper Hammond, who left a comment on Callender’s Writer Unboxed post:
Dare I say (whisper)? Don’t guilt trip me. I’m too ornery to take a pledge. Too blind to read books that don’t have enlargeable type. Too crowded in my little house to build any more bookshelves. Too poor to support every worthy cause. I never bought from Amazon until my daughter gave me a Kindle and I look forward to the day when I can buy books for it at an independent bookstore. Until then, Don’t guilt trip me.
Callender handled this comment graciously:
Yes, ma’am! Sorry to offend. I, too, look forward to the day when ebooks are available at indie bookstores. I hope that day’s not too far in the future. The enlargeable font really is a blessing!
And most folks commenting on Callender’s post dutifully promised to buy their one book per month from an independent bookstore.
I don’t doubt that Callender does mean well. She offers three reasons she feels bookstores’ “lives,” as she puts it, are worth “saving,” and she fleshes out each of these points:
- Bookstores facilitate a more connected community.
- Bookstores add personality and color to a community.
- Bookstores are incubators (of creative effort and of readers)
Daddy might have liked that list, actually. Sounds like several of the ways he always enjoyed describing the place of a good church in the community.
But gosh. How simplistic it is to speak in these blandishments. Just take the first point, the “more connected community.” Good-hearted Callender writes cheerily:
Bookstores do much more than sell books. These days they have to.
The other side of that? Victoria Noe, a businesswoman and writer, in a Facebook conversation with several of us reflects the way doing “much more than sell books” can actually be a sign of a business that’s erring and straying from its way:
It’s not enough to say “indie bookstores/brick & mortar stores” should survive. Every business ultimately has to fill a need in order to survive. The best ones create a new need in their customers.
How many of these stores have created a new need as the world changed and the digital dynamic picked up the pace around us?
Turner also wrote of the bookstores-doing-many-things tactic when he came away from the ambitious Kepler’s program in California. He noticed that the more the Kepler’s plan widens to include activities, the narrower grows that aisle of books. At Kepler’s, the ideas include:
- More events (in store, for a fee)
- More non-book items
- More serving of self-published authors for a fee via the Espresso Book Machine or some other POD solution
Can the character — these stores’ community-focusing personalities — possibly prevail as their inventories and events swerve away from the nostalgic images many of us recall from our pre-digital childhoods? Turner:
That doesn’t look much like a bookstore to me.
Noe points out that the in-store cafés, often thought to be such a smart move for bookstores, aren’t necessarily the boon they appear. In many cases, café patrons will spend a day nursing a cup or two of coffee and never look at the bookstore shelves, never buy a book. In fact, they may be there with their laptops. Ordering from Our Sister Church in Seattle.
Instead of trying to become so many things to so many people, Turner asked, why not consider aligning a bookstore’s original concept (selling books) with the fact of what’s happening to the industry?
Why can’t indie booksellers acknowledge Kindle’s market dominance and serve its customers with easy ordering in-store and via indie bookstore websites, securing an affiliate fee (from Amazon)?
And from the UK, as if in answer to Turner, Philip Jones at TheFutureBook writes up A bundling experiment called “Clonefiles.” It’s being run at an independent bookshop called Mostly Books by Osprey’s Angry Robot imprint. Jones writes:
The scheme offered the digital version of Angry Robot novels free to customers when they bought the physical paperback. Two weeks later Osprey chief executive Rebecca Smart told The Bookseller, that the initiative had trebled sales of the publisher’s titles at the trial store. The scheme has been supported in-store with a window display and signs explaining how it works. There is now an intention to roll it out in other independent bookshops.
Might there be a business model to explore there? As opposed to “everybody buy a book a month?”
What’s more, there are instances of sheer novelty close at hand. Sometimes these can sustain a special bookstore, certainly. John Williams wrote the Times’ coverage of author Larry McMurtry’s auction of some 300,000 books from his store Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, in Wanted, Dead or Alive: Used Books.
No, they can’t all be McMurtry’s store. But the time is coming, faithful Ethernaut, when we may have to realize that only some of these businesses can survive. The upheaval is deep and riven with lengthening shadows.
And wherever we may look for solutions, the problem is not Amazon.
I’ll say it again for you: The problem is not Amazon.
Which is why it’s such a misguided move to try to drive a wedge between that mammoth retailing powerhouse and its committed, loyal customers.
As big as it is Amazon is, the Internet it plies so well?–is a much bigger, wider sea.
And the Net’s entry into our lives, our workplaces, our homes, our culture, our careers, and, yes, our reading, was going to happen whether Jeff Bezos ever sat down in Seattle. Amazon has leveraged the digital dynamic, not rained it down on our heads.
Look again. Those bracing memories we all love: the moment we were hand-sold Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or a series of children’s books called The Little Colonel written in 1895 by Annie Fellows Johnston?–my grandmother showed me these on her best shelf. Those fond snapshots in our hearts are from a pre-digital era. Not from a pre-Amazon era.
Digital was coming, would come; has arrived; and it is the order of our day and our night, brothers and sisters. The deal is done; the dynamic is ours.
We order online because it’s smart, not because we’re shirking some duty to independent bookstores.
And has anyone asked a beleaguered independent bookstore owner just how many of us buying a book a month from her or him it would take to “save the life” of that emporium? Do we even know that a bunch of well-intentioned buddies writing “Me, too!” in comments on a blog post can keep a retail venture on its feet?
In the early 20th century, I could have told you that the horse and buggy ride offered fresh air, a gentle “clop clop” instead of engine noise, no gas fumes, and no flat tires. And I’d be right. But the Model T being driven into our culture by Ford would still have won out. And Ford was not the enemy.
Sometimes asking everybody to resist change by trying to preserve the familiar against the evolution of commercial forces is futile. You’re welcome to keep that buggy in the garage. But you’ll need a second garage for your Model T.
Salvation, as any PK can tell you, is never in the offering plate. It’s in finding a place, a purpose, a niche. And these bookstores have had a hard time doing that because — as with a lot of other businesses — it has simply become a lot more practical for consumers to patronize online retail outfits.
A knees-up round of guilt because we’re doing the sensible thing and shopping online may not help a single bookstore. With all respect for the sincere and heartwarming intentions of good colleagues like Callender, let’s not perpetuate digital resistance.
Let’s insist that stores we love find a way to thrive in our digital context. There are some fledgling efforts to get ebooks into retail outlets, you know, as with Clonefiles in the UK, and the Canadian beta Enthrill, now in more than 100 stores. As Laura Hazard Owen has reported at paidContent, Livrada is putting ebook gift cards into Target stores in the States.
Those schemes are early tries. We’ll need much more aggressive, integrated, practical, unsentimental thinking. Even anti-sentimental thinking.
As a thought exercise, I would ask why it’s important for bookstores to survive? Really, specifically, why? The answer (assuming for a minute it’s not “No reason”) is the key to the emerging opportunity.
Because how long can you artificially prop up a bookstore with monthly sympathy buys?
Please. Not the cupcakes. This is way beyond bake sales.
Or am I out of my mind? Feel free to say so (you won’t be the first). What do you think? Can we possibly hope to freeze-dry our bookstores with fellowship suppers and buy-a-book campaigns? Until when? — after how many eons will we thaw them back out? Which do you choose? Are you a preservationist? Or an evolutionist?
Join us Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com for Writing on the Ether, presented this week by Ether sponsor Roz Morris and her novel, My Memories of a Future Life.
Main image: iStockphoto / angie_lemon