Monday, August 29, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books

Today we begin a five-post, week-long series on publishing. The author is my great friend Andrew Gifford, the founder and publisher of the Santa Fe Writers Project. We've had many conversations over the years on writing and publishing, and I asked him to write a story for FPP on what he feels the collapse of Borders means to writers and the publishing industry in general. And this is it. (By the way, you may recall reading a profile of Andrew in the Washington Post Magazine three years ago. I was interviewed by the journalist. Alas, my awesome quotes were not included.)Stay tuned all week for what is, I believe, a truly fascinating story. Please read it, and please share it with your networks. Here's Andrew:

High Water Mark (1991-2000)

Before the rise of the chain super-bookstores Borders and Barnes & Noble, my first real job, in the summer of 1991 between my junior and senior year of high school, was at a small independent bookstore in Chevy Chase, MD. There were just two cramped rooms in what used to be, generations before, the servants’ kitchen and dining area of an old mansion overlooking Rock Creek. The customer entered through a narrow hallway and came out to the first room, reserved for gifts and gewgaws, and then moved around a sharp bend into the womb-like bookroom, typically unmonitored and unstaffed. A haven from the hustle and the bustle of traffic, wage slavery and salary serfdom, and the endless rat race of the surrounding city and slowly urbanizing suburbs. In the beginning, we had a strong staff. The manager – a fearsome woman who checked every outgoing package, took weekly inventory of every item in the store, and generally ruled her domain with the comfort and ease of all great generals. Her right hand was the bookbuyer, our de facto assistant manager who spent her day in the shadows placing orders. On the floor, I was one of four part timers who rotated through weekend, afterschool, and evening shifts. For the weekday shifts, the shop was run by viciously territorial volunteers, none of whom were any younger than 70. They would reluctantly hand over the reins at 4pm to one of the youthful staff members, and we’d be sure to keep our heads down till their cars had left the parking lot. For the most part, we’d be alone for the remainder of the shift. On weekends, there’d just be two of us, bored and with our noses always buried in books.

I most enjoyed the evening shifts, where I’d see maybe one customer, especially on dark winter nights, and spend the rest of the time ensconced in the bookroom, folded into a corner with a book and the silent, old house all around me. It was there where I learned to truly love books. I came from a bookish family, but was never taught to enjoy books, to embrace them. I was a typical 80’s latchkey kid, and my free time was spent with the Great God Television. When mom came dragging home at 7pm, there was no time for arts and literature. My Catholic school days were filled with nuns who appeared to have never read anything outside of Bible studies, and fanatically twisted lay teachers who behaved more like disgruntled Roman governors of minor provinces than purveyors of education.

I was the youngest of the part timers at the bookshop, coming in to fill the shoes of a pothead musician who had decided to take the summer off and drive his car around the coast of South America. No one heard from him again until nine months later, when he returned wearing a poncho, a skipper’s cap, and sunglasses like some Peruvian version of Gaddafi and demanded his job back. He was brushed off, and I got to keep my job for the long haul. Unlike my predecessor, I was happily a beast of burden for an extraordinary (for a 17 year old in 1991) $7 an hour.

Of course, it hadn’t yet dawned on me – or many people – that 1991 was the start of a transition. The internet revolution hadn’t yet caught hold, but the demand for a different way of bookselling certainly was there. Savvy indie booksellers knew a battle was coming. After all, they had just survived a major struggle, and now sat hunkered down, licking their wounds, in the calm before another storm.

Borders had been making money hand over fist with their mail order catalog. The early versions of their chain stores, and Barnes & Noble’s, had enjoyed success during the big money 80’s. Both were massing troops on the borders of retail, preparing for an all-out invasion.

On the small scale, independent bookstores like ours were seeing a quiet shift from customers coming through the door to a booming mail order business. Though I might sit through an entire shift and never see a customer, the mail, fax, and phone orders were constant. My initial job description was shipping and receiving, fulfilling the mountain of orders and carting them out to the UPS truck while the driver flirted with my boss.

I worked in the bookstore until 1996, off and on through college, and still keep in touch with the current staffers. I’ve watched it evolve, struggle, and, eventually, thrive over the last 20 years. A strange little oasis that’s defended against two decades of unpredictable, volatile, and somewhat dystopian publishing and book-selling methods.

Always feeling somewhat adrift in life, I latched onto this little store in 1991. It, and the staff and volunteers, became a surrogate for the family I didn’t really have, and the friends I couldn’t successfully make or maintain. I developed a fierce loyalty, and even went so far, when I hit college in late 1992, to place my textbook orders exclusively through the store. I was taking advantage of a 20% staff discount, of course, but the store was still turning a profit. In 1995, my boss asked me to stop. It was too much trouble to take special orders, she said. Too much work. When I returned in the summer of 95 to a greatly reduced schedule, I saw a business on the ropes. The mail orders had stopped, and sales had plummeted. A sea-change had occurred virtually overnight.

1995 saw go live. While not the first online bookstore, it was the first user-friendly one, and the most comprehensive. From my small college in central West Virginia, I had no choice but to drink from the poisoned chalice and take the plunge. Our college library was a haven of empty shelves and outdated books, and the only bookstore in town was an old lady’s living room where she’d sit and watch you like a hawk as you thumbed through her romance novels and mysteries. The school bookstore marked books up 200%, and there were so few students there was no hope of trading or reselling to each other. I went to Amazon and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Back at the little bookstore in Maryland, my shipping and receiving room was painted, carpeted, and became the children’s book room. The orders still trickled in from an old guard of rapidly aging customers, but fulfilling them was a collaborative effort and no longer demanded a regular position. In fact, mail orders were seen as a nuisance. The shop entered into a tumultuous phase where staff were let go, management was consolidated into one position, and inventory began to dwindle. By the time I left to pursue a post-college career, there were only two full time staffers and a volunteer army keeping the place just barely above the waves.

The mid-90’s saw much of the despair and language we hear today about the “death of print.” Except it was the “death of the indie bookstores” that weighed on everyone’s mind. The indie bookstore – privately owned, quirky, and pretty much the polar opposite of the big chain bookstores and online “e-sellers” that appeared to be the model of the future. The cold-blooded and untrustworthy internet had come crashing through the gates and laid waste to the previously secure little fiefdoms of indie bookselling. Sadly, the indie bookstores of the era were unable and unwilling to meet this change head on. Many feverishly decided to enter into open competition, appealing to their customers for mercy and for a partisan insurgency against Amazon and the chain bookstores. A sense of betrayal was born. The customers had turned away. The customers had once had a duty to support indie bookstores, and yet they had been lured off by the Sirens of convenience. For the next 15 years, the indies would retreat into different Luddite versions of this bitterness. This sense of them versus the world.

On the horizon, the masts of great warships also started to appear in the 90’s alongside the online bookstores. Borders and Barnes & Noble embarked on their super-bookstore campaign, having spent the 70’s and 80’s quietly devouring smaller chains and discount stores. The superstore campaign, though, had been pioneered by DC’s own Crown Books.

(to be continued tomorrow)

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