My quick post about the close of indie bookstores generated a wonderful discussion of around 20 lengthy comments. Several meaty issues are being analyzed. I’m really intriuged by the meta-issues the close of independent bookstores represent: Can the culture of books and the associated community survive even if the store closes? Is "culture" transitory or inextricably linked to its container?
Below is the some of the discussion so far (all of it here). Steve Silberman is a Contributing Editor at Wired. Jesse Berrett is a book reviewer/critic and chair of history dept at SF UHS. Chris Yeh is an entrepreneur. Jenny Lawton owns her own independent book store. Others chimed in, too.
When people bemoan the closing of their local independent bookstore, I always shudder. Why such cultural pessimism? Why such misguided attempts to flagellate capitalism? Tyler Cowen masterfully explains why bolstering the indies will not reverse any of the trends about culture people complain about.
Yes, the long tail phenomenon is fascinating and encouraging, and in a purely utilitarian sense, it’s easier for me to get obscure used books from around the country via the web; I thank Amazon and bookfinder.com for making it so much easier for me to find really weird books on topics that I’m interested in.
But the collateral social benefits of things like bookstores/indie coffeeshops/record stores etc. should not be underestimated. Social critics talk about the importance of the preservation of the "public sphere," as a forum for discussion, meeting, protest, organization, and mere conversation. Historically, indie-type places like, say, City Lights Books or A Clean Well-Lighted Place have been absolutely central in the creation of artistic scenes that have very little, in most cases, commercial potential. People do these things because they truly believe that Romanian novelists, for instance, are really worth reading, even if 35 people buy their work. Spiritually, as well, the kinds of values that Amoeba embodies and enacts daily are simply alien to those of Virgin Records or Wal-Mart. I don’t just mean that Wal-Mart, whose gravitational force on the culture industries is in fact terrifying, censors CDs that criticize it. It’s that they have neither the stomach nor the interest in promoting critical discussion of ANYTHING. It’s why your local BookSmith (on Haight, since your beloved CV has no bookstores), Ben, has such an interesting selection not just of books but of sections. Seriously, check it out.
I would hate to lose all of those things, simply in the interests of greater corporate hegemony. It’s not as if Wal-Mart needs defenders, as if indie bookstores are blasting it out of business. Cody’s, which is an outstanding store and cultural resource, is closing. ACWLP is closing. Is Border’s going to pick up that slack? Is it going to present a wide and interesting variety of intellectual perspectives? I think not.
As a final note, the weirdest aspect of this for me is that people like Malcolm Gladwell, John Tierney, and James Surowiecki have made careers out of defending and extolling the superior intelligence, adaptability, can-do spirit, canniness, etc. of the major corporation and somehow dressed up this defense of billionaires as a roguish, against-the-grain act of moral/intellectual bravery. Meanwhile, indie bookstores close down.