The Culture of Indie Bookstores: A Lively Debate (Me, Silberman, Berrett, Lawton, Yeh…You?)

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.

Ben Casnocha:
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.

Steve Silberman:

Mmmmm… not so masterfully, really. I’m a huge Amazon fan, and online ordering has mostly replaced my visits to used bookstores; so I can hardly be called a Luddite. But a few of Cowen’s assertions are either thinly supported or outright bogus.

He writes, "Bolstering the indies will not reverse any of these trends, nor are the chain stores to blame for their spread. The indies themselves aren’t always paragons of cultural virtue, either. One indie owner quoted in Reluctant Capitalists notes that he keeps book prices high ‘not from greed but as a way of reflecting what he sees as their worth as cultural artifacts.’ (On that basis, how can he possibly sell a paperback volume of Proust for $15.00?) Many of the smaller indies have financed themselves by selling, in a separate part of the store, pornography; indie stores are not all intellectual powerhouses like Powell’s in Portland, considered by many to be the best bookstore in the United States."

Well, having made a point of browsing through used bookstores in every city I visited from the time I was a teenager, I have to say, this secret gray market in porn keeping indies afloat is totally news to me. I’ve been to a very few bookstores that sold risqué books under the counter I suppose, but before the Internet, most porn was sold by mailorder and in magazine shops in dicey neighborhoods, not in bookstores. It’s an overwrought assertion by Cowen at best, which plays upon a prudish impulse to discredit the supposed morality of indie sellers.

Cowen writes: "f you don’t like the superstores, it is easy enough to expand your viewing horizons through other means. Just go to new sections of your superstore (the best popular book on geology, gardening, or basketball is very good, whether or not you like the topic). Stoop or stretch to slightly uncomfortable levels. Use the stool. Peruse books randomly. Look at other peoples’ discard piles."

He’s ignoring an elephant in the room to point at a mouse of serendipity. The elephant is that superstores, with their closely-tracked inventories pegged to quick selling items, and their legendarily ruthless buyers, simply do not order books from publishers unless there is a reasonable expectation that they will sell. Most superstores maintain an inventory of "classics" by Dickens and Shakespeare and whatnot — which will dependably sell to students if there’s a college nearby — but these sections seem like windowdressing to boost the apparent gravitas of the store, so that it’s not all diet books, romance novels, and buzzy hits like Freakonomics. The issue is not that more obscure books are on the lower shelf of Barnes and Noble; the issue is that many worthy books will never be carried by the superstores at all, and this knowledge plays an ever-increasing role in determining which books will be published by publishers in the first place. This is particularly true with rising paper and gas costs — as a newspaper article recently pointed out, a significantly smaller number of titles were published last year than the year before for these reasons.

On the other hand, I have a much higher chance of finding a used book I need online than heading out to a used bookstore and hoping it’s there.

Having visited Powell’s in Portland two weeks ago, Cowen’s certainly correct that it’s the best bookstore in the US. I can’t think of another one that even comes close. But I also noted that many used books and worthy remainders on the Powell’s shelves were priced much higher on their website than in the store. Aggregators like Alibris seem to be engaged in something like price-fixing for in-demand used books; I suspect that clerks in used bookstores simply look up a title to see what the market will bear — another reason why online bookselling limits serendipity in a way local bookshops do not, even when we’re talking about the same store.

I welcome the online used-book age, but concerns about what we’re losing in the process are certainly not "silly." What’s silly is dismissing the previous generations of booksellers as gray-market porn merchants and insisting that I would be able to find the first-edition memoir of Walt Whitman’s housekeeper — which I stumbled across at Moe’s in Berkeley a couple of years ago — on a shelf at Books A Million if I was only willing to bend over.

Ben Casnocha:

Steve — Thanks for the detailed comment. It is an eloquent, if unconvincing, critique.

Let’s first agree, as a matter of protocol, that Powell’s is the best used book store and that Cowen shouldn’t have thrown in that worthless graf on porn. These are minor points.

There are two main factors I would use when comparing an indie store vs. a superstore. First, we would look at diversity of selection. I think we’d both agree that a superstore has more selection than an indie store. Even though you include an anecdote about finding an elusive memoir at a bookstore, you say earlier that you’re much more likely to find a hard-to-get book at an online bookstore (or even, I would argue, at a Border’s). So, I think we can agree that your experience finding that memoir is more of an exception than the rule. Second, prices. This is an obvious one: chains have lower prices.

Now….You make the interesting argument that chain stores only want to buy books that will sell, and books that will sell are likely to be diet books and not Walt Whitman’s maid’s memoir. I agree. But isn’t it the same for indie stores? Why would indie stories possibly buy an obscure book that’s only going to sell one copy a year? If they did this, they’d go out of business (like many do). Unless an indie store operates in a very distinctive kind of community, where they could anticipate they kind of obscure needs of their clientele, most indies will need to stock the same percentage of best sellers as a chain.

But just because Border’s — or an indie store — doesn’t want to carry that memoir doesn’t mean it won’t get published. In fact, I would argue that now more than ever those small-audience books can be published and sold. This is the phenomenon of the Long Tail. This is the phenomenon of Amazon. Moreover, I’m highly skeptical that the number of books published are decreasing. A quick Google search didn’t reveal any stats around this, but my guess is the number of books being published is increasing. Self-publishing has n ever been easier. The tools and research needed to publish a book are at the tip of any computer user’s fingers.

Your next interesting argument is that of serendipity. I don’t understand when you say: " Aggregators like Alibris seem to be engaged in something like price-fixing for in-demand used books; I suspect that clerks in used bookstores simply look up a title to see what the market will bear — another reason why online bookselling limits serendipity in a way local bookshops do not, even when we’re talking about the same store."
My sense is that serendipity is just as much at play if you make an effort to browse a random bookstore as it is if you make an effort to click at random categories in books on Amazon or stand on a stool at Borders. I, for example, have found many interesting books through Amazon’s extensive "recommendation" tools. They say, "You liked book X, you will probably like book Y." You can play this game for as long as you want in a database of millions and millions of titles. They recently paired Freakonomics with "Hackoff," a self-published book about a dot-com CEO. No indie store can do this.

All of these arguments, though, are less persuasive than the one most indie bookstore fans make which is harder-to-pin-down: the cultural contributions they make to local communities. The value of knowing owner Joe. The waterhole quality for neighbors. I don’t buy this one, either, but I admire you and others making the more analytical and difficult argument, no matter how much I disagree.

Steve Silberman:


Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

First, we would look at diversity of selection. I think we’d both agree that a superstore has more selection than an indie store.

Only if you believe that a food court at a mall has "more selection" than a farmer’s market. What’s available at a food court? Hot dogs, nachos, and other processed items — albeit by the hundreds. What’s available at a farmer’s market? Whatever’s in season. This means that in certain months, tomatoes are simply not available — but apples are. Arguably, the food mall offers "more selection" all year round.

Indie stores indeed offer fewer titles than superstores — but in a way, 50 diet books are all the same kind of book, and 500 romance titles are barely different. Superstores offer bigger selections of the same kind of book, whereas indie bookstores are famously stocked by cranky intellectuals who tend to favor real literature over potboilers, timeless books over the big-seller-of-the-week, and so on. A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books (one of the great SF bookstores which will soon close — it was announced last week) probably stocks a tenth the number of books of any Borders branch; but the likelihood of my finding 100 titles that I want to read there are much higher than in most chain stores, because the titles in chain stores are determined by one thing only: the potential of mass sales. If a book underperforms, it’s off the shelves. But the titles in stores like A Clean Well Lighted Place are chosen by at least two criteria — sales potential, and the worth of the book as a reading experience. To extend the farmer’s market analogy, there’s less junk food on the shelves of a store like A Clean Well Lighted Place than in a Borders.

Why would indie stories possibly buy an obscure book that’s only going to sell one copy a year?

Because it’s a great book that you should read, instead of the latest cookie-cutter knockoff of the last bestseller. And yes, that’s part of why many indies are going out of business.

the Long Tail

In my mind, Amazon and Alibris on one side, and superstores like Books A Million on the other, are two very different things, not the same thing. I like Amazon and Alibris because, in a way, they do what indie stores do but better: they have huge offerings of even obscure books. They’re like farmer’s supermarkets. Admittedly they don’t nourish the intellectual life of a neighborhood the way a great bookstore does, but I’m willing to trade that for the immediate availability of the title I’m looking for — which puts me at odds with many "book people."

chains have lower prices

Of course.  Just like Wal-Mart has lower prices than the corner drugstore that’s now out of business.  No argument there.

But just because Border’s — or an indie store — doesn’t want to carry that memoir doesn’t mean it won’t get published. In fact, I would argue that now more than ever those small-audience books can be published and sold.

Sorry, but the superstores are definitely having an effect on what gets published — and even how they look once they’re published. Case in point of the enormous power of superstores, from last week’s New York magazine:

Sessalee Hensley Fiction buyer, Barnes & Noble Editors like to attribute the surprise success of books like The Lovely Bones and The Historian to “word of mouth,” but the word that matters most is Hensley’s. She can banish a new title to the bottom shelf, showcase it in the window, or, like Bones or Historian, promote it through the chain’s sales-boosting Discover Great New Writers program. (She also gets credit for touting a certain erstwhile mid-list writer named Dan Brown.) Backed by CEO Leonard Riggio’s virtual monopoly on bookstores, she even has the power to change covers. ‘She’s right up there with Oprah,’ says Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly."

That’s a rosy portrait of a brilliant buyer. What’s not said is what happens to the books and book ideas that superstore buyers don’t like — they vanish.

I’m highly skeptical that the number of books published are decreasing. A quick Google search didn’t reveal any stats around this, but my guess is the number of books being published is increasing.

"As a result of slowing book sales, publishers have decided to cut back on the amount of titles they put out, publishing only 172,000 books in 2005, the lowest number of books published since 1999.… "In 2005, publishers were more cautious and disciplined when it came to their lists," Gary Aiello, chief operating of Bowker, which compiles publishing statistics, said in a statement on Tuesday. "We see that trend continuing in 2006. The price of paper has already gone up twice this year, and publishers, especially the small ones, will have to think very carefully about what to publish."

By "very carefully," of course, Aiello means that publishers will have to focus more tightly on books that are guaranteed sellers.

They recently paired Freakonomics with "Hackoff," a self-published book about a dot-com CEO. No indie store can do this.

Well, that’s simply incorrect. Clerks at neighborhood bookstores make recommendations all the time to familiar customers. By "serendipity," I’m talking about something subtle: spotting a physical book on a physical shelf that turns out to be great, even if you’ve never read a book anything like it before. Granted, people can click on "random categories" in a place like Amazon, as you apparently do — but how many people spend a half an hour doing this, compared to spending half an hour browsing in a bookstore on a rainy afternoon? How many people go to Amazon knowing just what they want, and order it, and then surf away to other sites? It’s one of the best things about Amazon: the book you want is one click away.

Ben, you’re very very smart, and I agree with about 2/3 of what you’re saying. I’ve said all this to rebut the use of the word "silly" in your headline. Thinking about how the culture of books is changi ng because of a wave of extinctions among indie bookstores, or because of market pressures applied to publishers by superstores or rising paper prices is not silly. That’s what we’re doing so thoughtfully here.

Another analogy: the Apple Music Store, which I love and use often, vs. Amoeba Music, which I honestly believe is the best record store on Earth, and visit twice a week.

I love the Apple Music Store because I can buy just one track off an uneven album, and because I can hear what I want to hear, now, even from a hotel room in a podunk town in the middle of the night.

I love Amoeba Music because the experience of going there is marvelous. I’ve met a couple of close friends there, which I’ve certainly never done at the Apple Music Store! More pertinently, I’ve been turned on to many, many albums I didn’t walk in the store to buy because I happened to see them while browsing the racks, and was curious about them.

The Apple Music Store certainly "stocks" hundreds of thousands more titles than Amoeba Music. But if I could choose between a $10,000 gift certificate at AMS, or one at Amoeba, I’d take the one at Amoeba in a second, because after finding a few out-of-print jazz records at AMS that have thoughtfully be put online by Verve, I’d quickly find myself in a vast shallow sea of pop music. Granted, there’s a lot of classical and world music there too, but once you leave the pop realm, the descriptions borrowed fron become few and far between. I assume that in five years, the recommendation software at AMS will be amazing, and Amoeba will be gone. I will miss Amoeba, because I’ve found literally hundreds of great CDs there that I would never stumble on at AMS, even with better software and a larger inventory.

I want both AMS and Ameoba, and for a brief historical moment, I have them.

Jesse Berrett:

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 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.

Ben Casnocha:

Steve and Jesse,

Thanks for continuing the lively conversation. You both make strong points; isn’t it wonderful we can exchange ideas so vigorously through this medium? It probably doesn’t beat sipping coffee in one hand, holding a book in the other, and enjoying the ambience of an indie bookstore, but it sure does get close.

Let’s start here: It doesn’t really matter if indie bookstores go out of business. What matters is that the unique culture of books associated with indie bookstores survives. It existed before Cody’s, it will exist after Cody’s, perhaps online, perhaps in a forum that’s economically viable. Surely you two aren’t going to cave into that ugly mass culture, are you? Of course not. You will continue to find obscure books and music and you will find ways to develop fellowship with like minded souls. I think it’s important we keep in mind that just because the bathwater is changing color, the baby still breathes.

For the rest of the non elite-literary-types, ie "the common people," I see the evolution of book selling as a marvelous thing. Most of us will still read Freakonomics, just because we want to think we’re cutting edge. Hasn’t this always been the case? There are always going to be the people who just want to read what’s the best seller list. Now they can do so with broad selection, low prices, and hey, perhaps they’ll step on the stool and take a look at the tens of thousands of other books Border’s stocks. We may think McDonald’s is disgusting, but billions of people still buy their burgers, and sometimes they buy a McSalad, too.

Steve, you say the books at an indie store are determined by sales potential and "the worth of the book as a reading experience." I say — who determines the worth of the book? This is where I think markets do a good job. If no one is buying the book, I don’t think the idealistic (and, I would argue, arrogant) notion that, "I know my literature, and this deserves to be on the shelf regardless of whether people buy it" should rule. As Cowen points out,

"At every stage a more commercialized alternative has pushed out previous means of bookselling. All the while, literacy and book availability have continued to rise."

And, I would argue, literary types are and will continue to find a home, the common people will continue to read cheap books, and the quantity and quality of literature will rise all over the world as literacy rates improve.

Steve says:

To extend the farmer’s market analogy, there’s less junk food on the shelves of a store like A Clean Well Lighted Place than in a Borders.

This is similar to our conversation a couple months back about globalization and culture, where I evangelized Cowen’s point that we now enjoy more and better cultural options than ever before. In the example of cuisine, he argues that McDonald’s (read: cheap mass books) are a symptom of the riches we enjoy. You don’t have to buy the junk if you don’t want to. He points out that high and low culture are complements:

"Paris and Hong Kong, both centers of haute cuisine, have the world’s two busiest Pizza Hut outlets."

Is Borders devoid of the equivalent of "haute cuisine," or do you just have to search a little harder — bend over a little more — to find the gems amidst The World is Flat?

Steve, I’m still highly skeptical ab out the numbers you cite about decreasing books published. In fact, I even found contradictory numbers on BoingBoing which links to a now unworking link in the Salt Lake Tribune:

Some interesting new stats about book publishing. Number of books sold is way down. Number of titles published is up. Cover prices are up, and so are revenues (slightly). Higher cover prices are driving students and poorer people to used books (the article doesn’t say so, but I betcha that Amazon and ABE and other low-friction used-book dealers have a lot to do with this). Religious books are selling like hotcakes. There’s a long tail thing visible here: lots more books to much smaller audiences. Used books are easier to get than ever, which makes new books more valuable (just like the market in used cars makes new cars more valuable). New media like DVDs and games are eating into readers’ leisure time-budgets.

Moreover, I question whether the data you found account for all the on-demand publishing that happens now in the self-publishing realm. What "publishers" report as numbers may not be the whole pie, and may not account for the piece that’s increasing the fastest.

Steve, on your Ameoba music example:

The Apple Music Store certainly "stocks" hundreds of thousands more titles than Amoeba Music. But if I could choose between a $10,000 gift certificate at AMS, or one at Amoeba, I’d take the one at Amoeba in a second, because after finding a few out-of-print jazz records at AMS that have thoughtfully be put online by Verve, I’d quickly find myself in a vast shallow sea of pop music.

And yet, when Ameoba closes, will you simply resort to shallow pop music? I hope not. You — and people like you — will simply create a new, modern market for the exchange of such goods. I never have been to Ameoba and have no interest, but that’s because I’m not a music buff, and it doesn’t mean the small, idiosyncratic culture has to disappear. After all, if the close of a store — or if a new American product in Paris — can destroy a whole culture, maybe it deserves to be destroyed.

Jesse, you touch on something important and that is the civic role indie bookstores play in a community.

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.

I agree that some things with zero commercial potential still have cultural worth, and this is why the government and foundations subsidize so many arts initiatives. I also agree that certain institutions play essential role in civic engagement. But I’m relentlessly upbeat in this respect. It’s now easier than ever for a fledging band to record a piece in their garage, make it sound professional using $25 software, and put it on the web for people to listen to. The #1 song in Britain right now never even came out in CD — only in Mp3 format. It’s now easier than ever for the Romanian novelist to publish her work online or in-print (self publishing) and connect with not just 35 Bay Area peers but thousands of peers around the world. If we learned something from the Dean campaign, it was that the internet not only connects people electronically, but connects people w/ common interests in-person, too (see: Meetup). We are, in sum, seeing the amateurization of everything, with interest-based (NOT geography based) communities becoming the norm. City Lights Books may be shutting down, but don’t you think the prospects for that Romanian novelist are brighter than ever? Isn’t it better that I can debate the French employment law with French readers of my blog and not the passionate — but ill-informed — neighbor down the street?

Jesse, I think you derail at the end of your comment. You say Wal-Mart has no incentive to promote the critical discussion of anything. You say Border’s is not going to present a wide and interesting variety of perspectives. But my question is — how many people truly want critical discussion and wide perspectives? I am certain none of us is turning to Borders to provide our intellectual stimulation. I am also certain none of us shop for books or buy CDs at Wal-Mart. Those companies serve a real, legitimate market; a market that’s existed forever. It’s the unsophisticated market. It’s the lay consumer. Hasn’t that culture always been ugly? For the elite, sophisticated consumer, the market is changing. It no longer will be City Lights Books, but it doesn’t mean it’s disappearing. Indeed, for those willing to search, we now have greater access to a wider range of cinema, cuisine, and literature than ever before.

Jesse, I couldn’t disagree more to essentially imply that journalists and the media have made out the "billionaires" who run a "major corporation" as somehow heroic. I would argue corporations have never been portrayed in a more negative light, that my generation, at least, is extremely cynical about corporations gouging consumers, exploiting the third world, etc. Our politicians aren’t helping — angry Democrats go on stage and bitch about the oil tycoons making money at the expense of consumers at the pump, a view both devoid of common sense and any economics. What IS sad, I think, is that while most editorialists and romantics complain about the Wal-Mart Effect, or Borders, they forget that those very same companies provide employment, selection, and convenience for the vast majority of consumers. As for the rest of us, we’ve always consumed culture in a different way. Our ways may be changing, but that’s something to celebrate.

And so I turn it back to you — is your fear the baby being thrown out with the bathwater (the culture with the containers) or simply a temporal affection for a *kind* of that culture that will soon change forms, but not substance?

Chris Yeh:

Quite a discussion, and with an invitation from Ben himself to weigh in, how could I resist?

I am a confimed book lover, and I enjoy browsing the shelves of any bookstore, chain or independent.

In my youth, the only places available to me were the local Crown and Waldenbooks stores, which are surely among the most wretched on the planet. Yet I still loved books, and I still saw more books that I could ever possibly read.

While the chain bookstores have less personality than the classic indies (which are run on a non-economic fashion), book lovers should be thanking them for holding off an even more inimical and dangerous force: Wal-Mart.

You think the BN or Borders is bad?  Just try the books section at Wal-Mart.

Ultimately, I think we have to realize that chain bookstores and indie bookstores are two different animals.

The indie bookstore exists to reflect the personality and biases of its owner. In other words, it judges its own success on non-economic factors. So it is not surprising that in optimizing for non-economic factors, it finds itself unable to compete economically with the capitalistic superstores.

Making money selling books is hard enough. If you priortize things other than making money, what are the chances you’ll actually succeed in turning a profit?

What book lovers want from their indie bookstores is not selection or prices, but an experience. In many ways, a good bookstore is like a fine restaurant. It may not ser ve as many varieties of food as a Vegas buffet, but you’ll probably place a far higher value on the experience.

The problem is that indie bookstores deliver experiences, but make their money selling books.

The solution is to find a way for indie bookstores to make their money off the experience that they deliver.

Therein lies an interesting business proposition. There is a market for non-commercial, "authentic" experiences. But how do you tap that market without ruining the authenticity?

I’m not sure of the answer, but there may be ways to re-engineer the indie bookstore. Charge membership fees. Partner with complementors that do have a way to make money (like coffee shops). Set up shop as a book expert with a virtual store, by showing people interesting books and then ordering them for the customer online.

Once you define the problem differently than "why can’t indie bookstores compete with superstores," a whole array of possibilities opens up.

What a debate!

I own an independent bookstore.  It’s an interesting — and very difficult — business to manage.

There are a few things that are pretty basic when comparing indie to superstore:

big stores get bigger discounts and their terms allow for them to buy on net (i.e. buy books, return the unsold and pay only for what they sold) versus the model that a smaller store with less clout must follow which is buy, pay, and get credit. So, different cash flow situation.

A 30% discount on a book with a maximum 50% discounted buy doesn’t leave much room to make … money. When Amazon sells a book at 40%+ discount — they are losing money. A small store can’t afford this model.

The markets are differentiated. There is a mass market approach to the big superstore, large "bookstore in the sky" that an indie just isn’t satisfying. An indie is a niche. We can’t compete — and may not wish to compete — with B&N/AMAZON/Borders and MOST ESPECIALLY NOT THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT OF WAL-MART

Big stores influence publishers — have created whole new imprints. So, too, have indies (trade paperbacks and other paperback formats as examples)

Used books — big issue.  Think about royalties.  No matter where you buy them, the artist isn’t getting paid. 

I basically look at it this way: I can’t discount. Can’t afford the overhead if I do. I offer a service and a social option that the big boxes just don’t. We offer a community that a large bookstore won’t and an online bookstore cannot. We wrap for free, know the names of your dog, cat, kid, grandchild, wife and husband. We know what you read last and what you may want to read next. We know who else is in your bookclub and we deliver to your house for free. We order books that we don’t have and have them for you in less time than Amazon. But … we cannot ever be the large box bookstores.

America is losing community quickly. The sociological implications are interesting. The fact that my kids will probably end up in a world with no town center … no shops … the potential to go through a day without talking to a person or interacting with a human is distressing.

The loss of ANY INDEPENDENT STORE is a loss to community, to culture to a way of life that I’m not so sure should be lost. 

As the owner of the bookstore and coffeeshop that are the hub in the little town that I live in, I know why the town mourns the loss of an independent and why our loyal customers come back time and time again to spend the extra 30% at our stores. And it has nothing to do with the product and everything to do with the entire experience and the downstream experience and the ability to be a part of something more than a purchase and the ensuing consumption.

Steve Silberman:

Great posts all around.  Ben, I have to take issue with a couple of your points. 

Steve, you say the books at an indie store are determined by sales potential and "the worth of the book as a reading experience." I say — who determines the worth of the book? This is where I think markets do a good job.

I’d like to believe this, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise, spanning the history of publishing.  Melville’s Moby Dick, for instance, was a commercial failure upon its release. It was widely considered an embarrassing, overlong diversion in the career of a once-promising sea-adventure story writer; Melville himself died believing he had failed in his quest to write an American epic. It was only in the mid-20th Century that the book found a wide audience and attained its status as one of the top five candidate for the Great American Novel.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, is now considered one of the classics of 20th Century literature, but it was rejected by over two dozen publishers before a couple of brave editors decided to publish a book that they believed was brilliant but would be a commercial failure (I just finished reading their interoffice memos to one another.) The book was one of those that helped keep many indie bookstores afloat — a commercial success that was also "arty." It is now one of the most durable midlist sellers, selling 100,000 copies a year.

In one way, these examples provide a great example for disintermediation — what if Melville had been able to publish the book himself as an e-book, mightn’t it have taken off? But the commercial reception for the book suggests that readers were simply not yet ready for it when it appeared.

I am ecstatic about the possibilities that easy self-publishing offer to the young writer. The next young Kerouac could just launch a website to promote his first novel, making it available as a PDF or e-book. Smart audiences would find it and embrace it. Voila! But what’s missing from this model? Answer: excellent editors. Anyone who believes that editors are unnecessary middlemen who simply exist to mess up original genius by inflicting conventional wisdom on a text is probably not a very good writer himself, and has never experienced the thrill of working with a truly inspired editor who helps him or her write over his own abilities and attain greatness. Non-literary people tend to be suspicious of this, but imagine if athletic teams suddenly said, "Coaches are unnecessary — they’re a bunch of middleaged ex-athletes who exist only to pester brilliant young basketball players into thinking they’re not good enough as is." It just ain’t true.

And we don’t have to think about this in a vacuum. We’ve had the Web for over ten years now, and where’s the Great American Novel that appeared as a link on someone’s MySpace page one day and burst into prominence? It didn’t happen — but it certainly could. I do have that much faith. But the creation of an excellent book often entails a collaborative effort between writers, editors, fact-checkers, and book designers. There are many times when I feel frustrated by the editing process at Wired — but I also know that it has helped me write much better articles than I would have been able to had I been writing them for my blog.

who determines the worth of the book?

I see what you’re driving at, Ben, I also see an undertone of the anti-"elitist" hype that has become a major force under the Bush administration. In this day and age, there’s widespread distrust of experts of any kind — scientists, the press, even generals who served in the Iraq War. Ben, I’m not going to mince words: examine this idea very, very carefully, before you adopt it as part of your take on the world. It has already done profound damage in the world. The evidence of global warming was dismissed by the Bush folks as the nattering of worrywart anti-corporate scientific elites; the concerns about the state of Iraq after the "shock and awe" invasion by such institutions as the War College were dismissed as pessimistic and old-fashioned; the mainstream media or "MSM" was dismissed by talk radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin as a "moonbat liberal" conspiracy, despite the fact that many of the most liberal notions about the war in Iraq — such as that the country was misled by the administration and launched on the basis of distorted intelligence — turned out to be precisely true.

In the age of crowdsourcing, disintermediation, and other cut-the-expert-out-of-the-loop memes, it’s easy to go overboard and start to distrust expertise in general. But if I ever need brain surgery, I want a trained elite brain surgeon going in with the knife, not some guy who brushed up on neurophysiology from a website. Likewise, when I need word surgery on something I’ve written, I want a trained editor.

In the current climate of book publishing, in part driven by feedback from superstore book-buyers, it’s hard to imagine many of the great authors of the last couple of centuries ever getting published in the first place: Melville, Kerouac, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, William Burroughs. Yes, they all could have self-published — as poet Walt Whitman did with Leaves of Grass, a great example of a writer who used the disintermediating technology of the 19th Century to speak directly to his readers. But even Whitman had to resort to writing rave reviews of his book under pseudonyms in newspapers to spread the word. He was fairly popular during his lifetime, but immediately afterward, Leaves of Grass became unpopular again, and it was only through the efforts of a few rebel academics and public proponents like Allen Ginsberg that Whitman’s reputation was renovated and his book joined the canon of groundbreaking American lit.

Is City Lights Books closing? I hope to God not. It’s one of my favorite places in the city. Note: I said "places," not "businesses." Businesses are frequently interchangeable. Places are not. Browsing for books at City Lights is not an experience that can be duplicated clicking around at Amazon, any more than a meal at Chez Panisse or Balazo Taqueria or Ton Kiang can be replaced by reading a book of recipes.

Movies are another fine example. From Japanese horror (no, not remakes) to French love stories, NetFlicks has opened up my eyes to countless titles from Europe and Asia, all of which Blockbuster or the old individually owned video stores could have carried.

Yes, could have, but don’t — for precisely the same reasons that superstores emphasize crap at the expense of literature. I love Netflix. I wouldn’t mind if the neighborhood video shop went out of business, because, frankly, I’ve never had a beautiful experience at a video store — even at Le Video, which is probably the best video store I’ve ever been to, a veritable City Lights of video stores. But do you think many of those fascinating movies you enjoy on Netflix would have ever gotten made if film producers polled Blockbuster buyers (as they now do) in the same way that book publishers poll superstore buyers before deciding on the size of a first printing?

I have been a prolific public proponent of amateur art, disintermediation, and the Internet. But I also know that certain very worthy pieces of art can only be created by trained masters at the height of their powers, collaborating with other trained "experts," and leveraging significant amounts of capital. The Japanese director Akira Kurosawa could have made brilliant films with a digital video camera, I have no doubt. But none of them would have been Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior, which featured huge battle scenes featuring thousands of warriors and had a sense of grandeur and gravitas usually associated with Shakespeare.

Our politicians aren’t helping — angry Democrats go on stage and bitch about the oil tycoons making money at the expense of consumers at the pump, a view both devoid of common sense and any economics.

Oh, you think that’s the problem? You would have loved the arguments made against the moonbat liberals who claimed that the power companies were gaming the system to artificially inflate energy prices during the epidemics of "rolling blackouts" in California a few years ago. The problem then was "obviously" that there wasn’t enough power, that the grid was obsolete, and so on. Innovative companies using groundbreaking technology like the Internet to do power trading were "obviously" part of the solution, not part of the problem. But then the world learned what was happening at Enron.

Ben Casnocha:

There are a lot of interesting threads here. Instead of responding to each individually, I will attempt to sum up and see where we stand.

I think we all agree that indie bookstores make important cultural contributions to their communities. They are home to artistic and intellectual germination that may not be found elsewhere. They provide a lovely experience that cannot, at present, be replicated in the virtual or chain store environment. For indie bookstore lovers, it’s not about prices or selection, it’s about the experience.

I think we can also agree that for most consumers, it’s not about the experience. It’s about price and selection. In this sense, Borders, the Vegas buffet, and McDonald’s, do a great job at satisfying the wants of most people. The question is whether that 1% of the population — who I will call the "elite" — must lose their unique experience at the same time.

Here is where we seem to disagree. I care just as much about the experience and culture embodied in the indie bookstore ideal, but I don’t believe that experience must exist in its current container. A pessimistic view of culture is an "essentialist" one — the content and container are inextricably linked. The optimistic view, I think, is the content of culture survives the changes in form. We’re undergoing a humongous change in the way culture is created and talked about, and we’re just at the tipping point.

Am I, at times, uneasy as we endure this transformation? Yes. Much of "pop culture" sickens me. A pornified, anti-intellectual undercurrent seems to rule many college campuses.

But in general I’m upbeat. I think indie bookstores will continue to shut down. I think Ameoba Records will close sometime, too. But I don’t think the people who patronize the stores will simply disappear. And I don’t think Steve Silberman will stop listening to Japanese jazz. And I don’t think Jesse Berrett will stop reading Romanian novels. And I don’t think Jenny Lawton will stop caring about her neighbors. We will simply reinvent the container — it will look different, for sure, it will be more synthetic and global and perhaps more electronic; but it can be better, too. It can be better if we accept and embrace the transformation as the inevitable spin of the wheel of invention and of progress.

Which leaves me with Chris’ point: instead of protesting the entry of Borders into a neighborhood, or groaning about not being able to compete with BN, indie bookstores should find a way to monetize their unique experience. If they can, they can survive the change. If they can’t, their patrons and culture will move elsewhere. Not evaporate.

Chris Yeh:

One of the macro trends I see is the gradual unbundling of many goods and services, that, for legacy reasons, were previously bundled.

Employment and he alth insurance.

Employment and retirement savings.

Employment and office space.

I’m a bit focused on work, simply because that’s an area in which I do a lot of thinking, but you get my point.

Jenny’s bookstore bundles an experience and a community with higher prices on books, which the members are willing to pay to support that community.

What would happen if you charged membership fees, and members got to buy any book they wanted at cost?

Maybe there are different ways to create a more attractive bundle than the one that history has bequeathed to us.

Jenny Lawton:

I was a kid when malls were first being developed. You would have thoguht that mall developers were the left hand of the devil and bringing hades to earth. The predictions were that malls would destroy small town community and that would be the beginning of the end.

The truth was that malls created a new town center and allowed for there to be a gathering place for people who had moved into developments. This trend has gone in and out of favor as communities and towns grown and expand and … shrink. The newest critique is of places like Wal-Mart and Target — not dissimilar to the arguments with the malls.

The truth is that yes, malls and Wal-Mart and the internet have gutted communities and taken away town centers and left towns without a central gathering place. Of course, this has been going on forever … there used to be towns with town greens and all the activity in a town took place around the green. So, society evolves. I agree with that.

Now, when the internet was popularized and privatized and Gore let the world know that he had invented it … the same fears arose. Were people going to stop talking? Stop moving? Never leave the house? Couldn’t the internet replace everything? It was interesting and working in the midst of the debate was fascinating. And some stuff worked and other stuff did not. One very interesting thing that did not work well was having groceries purchased and delivered via the internet. There was some theory that there was just too strong of a need to interact with your food purchases and see your neighbors, etc. as you did this. Of course, this was all in conjunction with grocery store consolidation and the mourning of the loss of the bodega and the mom+pop grocery store, etc.

Yes, we will evolve and change and yes we are in the midst of a large cultural shift. I worry that people will forget how to interact with other people — will forget how to talk to people, how to ask for what they need, how to discuss their likes and dislikes. But I also think that people have an extreme need to interact with people.

What does this have to do with indie bookstores? Independent stores tend to be owned by people in a community and patronized by the people in their community. The lifespan of an independent store is definitely finite. I know this. We’re on the very tail end of a declining market. And the reasons are many and probably rooted in the level of mobility of people in our world. Families don’t live in the same regions any more, people move houses every few years, people move from state-to-state without much consideration. That’s an evolution that creates different needs and desires.

Part of the change is that consumer products are beoming even more commoditized. ANd our connections to the community that we live in are sufficiently weakened that we think of what we need in terms of commodity versus what the other benefits around consumption are. And that’s okay. But I think it is fair to stop, take pause, and note the change. And for people who love the service, the exchange, the whole package as it is, mourn the passing of an era.

What’s coming up will probably not be nearly as connected to people and community and a sense of place as the past. So, I’m not sure that it will be the same concept served in different vessels. In fact, I think that our seeking out of people and interactions with the world will become either more pure — not wrapped into daily routine and needs but will be purely on the level of seeking interaction — or will start to disappear as we depend more and more on electronic communication.

I think the thing that I fear is less the loss of a way of life and a way of the world that I am comfortable and familiar with and more the loss of our ability to interact with people. I worry that our technology will rob people of voice and emotion and interaction and that would be sad.

THAT SAID … if the bookstore left our town, people would riot. They would do a lot to prevent the loss. Because I live in a community that is trying hard to preserve their community. And the town is wealthy enough to pay for the community that they desire and prolong the loss for a few more years.

And, they would also recover. We used to have 10 independents in town and now we have 2. New Canaan has lost their indepednent twice and are going to try just one more time … but it is a tide that can’t be stopped.

12 comments on “The Culture of Indie Bookstores: A Lively Debate (Me, Silberman, Berrett, Lawton, Yeh…You?)
  • Thanks for hosting this wonderful exchange, Ben. I’ve really enjoyed it. And you have cool friends (smile).

    Jenny, to me, the food court at a mall is hardly a substitute for the soda fountain at the corner drugstore. They’re not just two different aesthetics, they provide distinct social functions. I only need to point out one thing to make this point: How often do shoppers at malls end up having a conversation with someone they don’t know, other than cursory remarks to the check-out clerks? I will grant that teenagers may be a slight exception to this rule, but I grew up in a town in New Jersey where the teen culture was centered about a mall, and I can’t recall ever making a friend there; in fact, I can’t recall having a single conversation with a stranger at the mall other than to ask directions — and I’m an extremely gregarious person, as Ben can attest. In fact, the malls did almost precisely what the people who protested their arrival feared most in their effect on the old downtowns.

    I travel a lot for work both domestically and internationally, and it’s truly sobering to note how much most of “middle America” has become homogenous in the Age of Malls. Towns in Florida look just like towns in Illinois look just like towns in Texas; maybe in one place it’s Borders instead of Books-A-Million, while in another it’s Chick-Fil-A instead of Arby’s. But the landscapes, the food, the hyperprocessed atmosphere, and the lack of comfortable “third places” where locals can meet locals is staggering.

    What the malls have not destroyed is human nature, so yes, people are still people, even in malls. But I’ve lived in towns centered around street life and downtowns, and I’ve lived in towns centered around malls, and it’s apples and oranges. Some towns don’t even build sidewalks anymore in the residential areas, because the planners assume you will drive from your cocoon at home to the cocoon at the mall in your SUV cocoon (talking on your cell phone); why waste the cement?

    When I visited a friend in Longview, Texas a couple of years ago, I decided to take a walk in his suburban neighborhood. The sight of a pedestrian was so unusual that someone called the police, and I had to explain to the officer why I was walking around!

    What’s coming up will probably not be nearly as connected to people and community and a sense of place as the past.

    One way that this directly impacts communities is that it results in a population base of corporate nomads who couldn’t care less about environmental degradation in the place they live — why should they, when they’ll be splitting in three years? I have often noted in my travels that people who work in malls are unable to answer even the most basic questions about the town they’re supposedly in; they are often unaware of the location of even main streets or famous landmarks nearby. That’s because they drive to work along routinized routes, and have no connection to their surroundings.

    This kind of rootless population is terribly dependent on media to derive their sense of who they are and what’s happening in the world, and that widely publicized statistic from several years ago that people who watch FOX News were much more prone to believing that Saddam had a direct connection to the 9/11 hijackers is a perfect example of how dangerous this can be to a democracy.

    As far as the Internet goes, I knew right away that it was a great thing because, in part, it provided a viable substitute for vanishing “third places” that were wiped out by malls and the ascendance of TV.

    I know I’m coming off like an old fuddy-duddy here, but I am not anti-technology or anti-future or any of that. I’m anti-crap. If you want to argue that a Whopper at Burger King is the equivalent of a meal at a good local restaurant, you might as well take the position of that guy in the first Matrix who argued that he didn’t care if the steak he was eating was real or not.

    This conversation is an excellent example of how successful the Internet is at promoting conversation between keen minds without regards to geography. Many of the people who feared the popularity of the Internet, I believe, were not seeing what was in front of their eyes very clearly. But the people who worried about the effect of big-box stores, chains, and malls on regional cultures were quite correct. In fact, you can already see an emerging reaction to the Age of Malls in towns like Portland, Oregon, where instead of decimating the old neighborhoods to build malls (with the exception of the old industrial zone near the river), they’re renovating and rebuilding them into an updated version of the way of life that has proven healthy and rewarding for human communities for hundreds of years.

  • Ben –

    This is an interesting discussion, but it may be missing a fundamental point. The Magazine section of the Sunday NY Times had a truly remarkable article about the future of books.


    If you go with the premise (physical libraries are dead), and take it a bit further, even B&N or Amazon may not be in the business of selling published, printed and bound books (at least from a warehouse).

    All used books (cited by a commenter as a reason for the indy) would be searchable and downloadable (and you could print it at home).

    Ultimately, 50 years or 100 years from now, the book publishing business as it has been for 100’s of years may cease to exist.


  • Man, this series of entries had as much reading in it as an independent bookstore. Indies have a great opportunity to compete in the future if they pool their marketing and purchasing power more. As an author, I have witnessed the affinity that neighborhoods have for their stores…the positive feelings that book clubs have for their “home bookstore.” But these stores are not the best at translating this positive mojo into loyalty or sales.

  • I think the thing that I fear is less the loss of a way of life and a way of the world that I am comfortable and familiar with and more the loss of our ability to interact with people.

    Exactly. I’m not going to add much to the eloquent points that have been made here, but the relentless marketization of our culture is a troubling trend. It’s absolutely true that what Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” is the way of capitalism, and that much of what we get attached to is merely the ramifications of one particular stage–I grew up in Westchester County, New York (and will try to hop over to Greenwich next time I’m home to patronize Jenny’s indie bookstore), and our town mall, which did help kill off our town’s downtown when I was 13, is now itself converted into a monster Target and a monster A&P, and downtown itself is now thronged with Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, Borders, etc. But I can’t help missing the stage I lived through, which had 20-30 smaller, mom-and-pop stores rather than 2-3 multinational monsters. I have also been to some of those not-places, and they’re really creepy; went to a wedding once in Kansas City, and we were staying at a “place” that was basically two freeway overpasses crossing, plus a car dealership, a hotel, a manmade lake, and some food-court-ish restaurants. It was horrible. My town of 8000 people now looks more like that. Can I get more stuff more easily there than I could when I was a kid? Yeah. Do I like it better? I am honestly not sure.

    Maybe that’s an irrational feeling. But maybe one of the important points here is that bottom-line economic rationality shouldn’t be the only thing that accounts for the value of a cultural institution, and that there’s a purpose to the kinds of cultural work communities have undertaken to preserve local particularities from standardization.

  • Dunno if anyone else is even following this, still–one of the weaknesses of web dialogues, I think–but there’s a really interesting article,collins,73282,10.html
    by Paul Collins in this month’s Village Voice Literary Supplement. It concludes:

    If print-on-demand technology, though still poky and faintly disreputable, ever achieves the availability and quality of traditional books, the need for overstock returns, remainders, and huge retail spaces may evaporate.

    Strange to say, someday superstores may be the historical curiosity that indies are now in danger of becoming.

  • Steve, which notion–print-on-demand?
    As a magazine guy, do you have any attachment to the physical object? I mean, Wired itself has a tangible existence. Do you have stacks of old issues, and does the mere fact of stacks themselves appeal, visually or emotionally?

    I mean, I really do feel an attachment to the physical object. At least, I think I do; I order probably 2-3 old books a month (ie published before, say, 1950), and there’s something really meaningful for me in the physical fact of the book’s existence. There’s a history for me, a sense of things literally being passed down that you can see when you find, say, someone’s name and address written inside, a ticket somewhere and somewhen, a newspaper clipping…I’ve done some work and reading in book history, and tracing where books go is a really interesting and intellectually useful exercise.

    At the same time, I paid $50 a couple of months back for a John Lardner book on boxing, simply b/c it’s rare. And it occurred to me as I did that I could just as well pay $10 to some print-on-demand place and have a copy that would read exactly as well and be in better shape (I presume). So I suppose I am somewhat ambivalent, in that I would hate for everything old to be pulped, for which, as Collins suggests, there are ample financial and spatial incentives…

  • What a timely and relevant article in the VV given our discussion. Unfortunately, the print-on-demand notion wasn’t introduced until the very last graf. The rest of the piece seems to cover many of the points we’ve discussed here (indeed, Collins’ book in question is Reluctant Capitalist, the same book Cowen’s original Slate piece covered).

    “When you lose an [independent] bookstore, you don’t just lose the place,” Kaplan explains. “You lose the people. Knowledgeable book people are being lost from book culture.”
    Are we witnessing the extinction of that culture?

    This gets at the crux of the matter, I think, and is where, again, I strongly disagree. Why do people think that knowledgeable book people disappear with the place? This seems totally nuts to me.

    On print-on-demand, I’m not sure I understand Collins’ last question. Is he saying that even superstore bookstores may become extinct if print-on-demand technology gets to the point where consumers can buy exactly the book they want at exactly the right price — perfect price discriminating economics — then a lot of the “muscle” of superstores is lost?

    On your last point Jesse: You raise a fair emotional connection that I’m sure a small number (but nonetheless significant) people have. If I wear my futurist hat for a second, I guess I would say people will form new emotional connections with the new mediums/media. Do music lovers still cling to old records and listen to them on recordplayers? Maybe a few, but most, I assume, have moved on to CDs and MP3s, new media which in many ways allow them to grow and share their passion in means unimaginable just 10 years ago. So who knows how you’ll be able to express your love for books in 10 years? It will be different. But — maybe, hopefully, probably — it will be better.

  • Jesse’s comment just indicates the greater need to unbundle the services
    and experience of being in a bookstore. With print on demand, you could just stock one copy of each book (saving on inventory and space), and focus instead on delivering the indie bookstore experience.

  • You wish! Print on demand is A LONG AWAY from this situation. The books are expensive and the delivery service is far from fast or perfected.

    There is a lot going on in this space, though, and the content delivery of books will be changing.

    There’s an associated overhead with low inventory or no-inventory stocking — for one, you have to train people to order from you and pick up from you and then … why? If you do that, why not just do that from the source or from Amazon?

    The indie experience is not about the product — it’s about the delivery of the service and the product.

    The difference between services and commodities. And you can apply this difference down the line in any business — and look at what commoditization does to the price of product and how it effects service.

    The concept of an indie being comparable to a mass market business just doesn’t fly. It’s like comparing McDonalds to the little hamburger joint on the corner in your neighborhood (oh, you don’t have one of those?) or like comparing Bed Bath and Beyond to the linen store down the street (oh, none of those either?) or … buying your meat at the supermarket instead of the butcher (hmmm…did you know that there are such things as butcher stores?)

    Delivering books on demand won’t solve the issues of the disappearing independents. Probably nothing will. A way of life will pass by and people will buy books (or not) elsewhere.


  • I don’t know about you, but there are definitely still plenty of
    independents where I live. For burgers, Kirk’s in Palo Alto is still going strong. And for a chain with soul, In-N-Out is popular and growing.

    Dittmer’s still does a brisk business in high-end meats.

    I don’t shop for linens, but I’ll bet that those exist as well.

    Sadly, there are many fewer independents than chains. But that’s simply because chains are better for addressing mass markets. For niche markets, independents are superior. The problem is just finding a niche that is large enough to support an independent.

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