Thursday, December 17, 2009

Voting in a hidden election...

Seattle's legendary independent bookstore Elliot Bay is moving from the location in Pioneer Square it has occupied for almost forty years.

This is perhaps not so momentous for those bookhounds who live beyond the Puget Sound, but for those of us close-by it's a bit like hearing that the Space Needle is going to be relocated. The legendarily creaky plank floors of the Elliot Bay book store really are that much of an icon to the literate denizens of Western Washington.

Thankfully, they're just moving up Capitol Hill (which puts them closer to my brother-in-law's place, come to think of it) rather than closing as previously feared. But the economic necessity that drove them to seek less-expensive digs is an eye-opener on the state of bookselling in America. If even the most iconic bookstore in a city that has been the most literate city in America for many years is endangered, what does that say about our buying habits?

I hope they install some creaks and squeaks in their new location.

I've been a manager for both of the major chains and my brother in law used to work for Amazon. I have a better appreciation than most for what large bookstores bring to the party, and for all the complaints people have about them, they have been largely responsible for the integration of reading into modern American culture. Many books and authors may never have found an audience without the big-box chains needing to fill shelf space and selecting them out of the dustbin of the backlist. Many publishers would not have survived into the new millenium without their broad avenue of distribution.

But the independent bookstores embody the culture of their cities, and to cavalierly throw that away is a travesty. This is a hard sell in tough economic times, believe me, I know there are genuine economic reasons to shop the chain stores or online for your books. Not every city or town has - or ever had - a thriving independent bookstore. But the price wars like the recent one between Amazon and WalMart are unsustainable.

The dollars you throw into the kitty of one or the other of those rivals won't be a vote to preserve those prices. Price wars are fleeting, but the damage they do to those who cannot participate (and to some who do) is permanent. And once closed, an independent bookstore in your area is gone, likely never to return.

Witness the towns across America who now lack a grocery store because they threw their business to WalMart until that was all they had left. Every dollar you spend on books this holiday season is a vote in a hidden election. And like any election, the consideration cannot be wholly economic. Because while money cannot buy culture, it can preserve it.

Bookselling is a peculiar world, a meeting place of art and culture and commerce. A place where the boundless thoughts and ideas and dreams of our culture are exchanged, and as consumers we get to vote on the venue we think best suits that exchange. I posit that this sort of activity thrives best in a marketplace with as many competing voices as possible given as much room to run as we have to offer. Don't know your local Indie bookseller? Find them online using this handy tool provided by IndieBound.


Update:  The new Elliot Bay is in a beautiful new location, in the sort of permanently up & coming neighborhoods Seattle is famous for. Sadly, they didn't bring the creaky floors with them, but they did salvage their iconic stained glass...

1 comment:

  1. An issue I relate too, we have lost our local independents and the book stores that remain carry little that is different to what is available in the chain stores. We do travel to buy books at a great independent in the nearest capital and I would much rather pay more for a book from them and know that they will continue to exist in order to provide me with variety and knowledgable service. They have survived even though they had two major chain book stores open on their doorstep and despite not being able to match their prices, they could still beat them in terms of their range and service, they have inspired a very loyal clientele, one of the big stores has since folded. I am finding I really miss the simple pleasure of browsing in a good independent book shop. I had a rant about this recently. Despite supporting book shops I am finding more and more out of sheer necessity I am buying online as the book shops simply are not stocking what I want, mind you I don't live in area noted for it's culture and perhaps that is part of the problem.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).