Posts Tagged ‘independent bookstore’

How Independent Stores Can Succeed in the Age of the E-book

October 16, 2010

(Note: The following was an opinion piece  I wrote that appeared in the October 11 issue of Publishers Weekly.)

With all the news about book publishers’ and chains’ struggles to adjust to the digital juggernaut, I’m wondering, possibly counterintuitively, whether this may be a real opportunity for independent booksellers.

For the past 20 years, the book chains have had a marketing strategy that emphasized huge stores with a vast selection of titles and discount pricing. The stores were primarily in high traffic stand-alone locations or in regional and big-box malls that would draw on a large body of shoppers needed to support the overhead.

By the year 2000, the chain superstores’ title selection had been trumped by Internet booksellers. It was also a particularly bad time for independent stores. They did not fare well in a world dominated by media-driven blockbusters, by mass merchants skilled at selling these kinds of books, and by well-financed Internet retailers who offered formidable competition in price, selection, and service. The indies that now seem to be the most robust are the smaller stores that are situated in neighborhood centers serving discrete audiences. What they offer, and what has always been the singular virtue of independent stores, is the uniqueness of the bookseller’s sensibility and taste, the devotion to a very personal kind of customer service, and the vision of the bookstore as a community center.

In the age of the mass merchant and the big-box retailer, these values were often eclipsed. But with the rise in popularity of e-books and the struggles of the huge superstores to adjust to this new model, the smaller independents will reap benefits by serving those customers who will always exist to buy traditional books. And let us not forget that ineffable, even sensual,  experience of browsing that will forever be lost in the marketplace of e-books. As e-books become the dominant platform, which now seems all but inevitable, those virtues will become all the more apparent and valued by comparison.

But there is possibly even more good news for independents. Let us also hope that the economic paradigm that seems to be emerging is one where the big Internet companies are not able to compete by ruinous price competition, a strategy that has always served them well, and a game that independents can never win. When the retail price is determined by the publisher, as it is in the new “agency” models, for the first time the independents can compete in price on a level playing field and, at the same time, offer comparable selection and superior service.

Colin Robinson, publisher of OR Books, wrote a brilliant article in the July 14 issue of the Nation. He pointed out that the huge proliferation of choice engendered by Internet bookselling and by the growth of POD self-publishing has had the paradoxical effect of reducing the ability of the book buyer to make his or her own informed evaluations and choices. This is made manifest in book publishing by the tragic decline of the midlist, which has been caught between the Scylla of the commercial blockbuster and the Charybdis of the undifferentiated mediocrity of self-publishing. (Begging your pardon. There are also lost masterpieces in the self-publishing world. But they tend to be just that – lost.)

And in this environment as well, the independent is in the strongest position to profit from this development by being uniquely positioned to offer informed guidance to the book buyer.

People in the book business have always had and still have a sentimental attachment to the independent bookseller as the “heart and soul” of the business. But with the coming of the e-book revolution, it just might be possible that the indies will again become an economic force to be reckoned with, and the idea that bookselling is a vocation, not just a business, will gain a new life and a new stature, and will again be a virtue to be valued in the marketplace as well as in our hearts.

 

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Thinking About Cody’s

September 27, 2009

I suppose it is time to say something about Cody’s. I haven’t said very much about it, except to my wife, Leslie. And it seems to make her uneasy when I do.

Cody’s closed its doors on June 20, 2008. I wasn’t there that day. I hadn’t been working there since December of the previous year. I had sold Cody’s to Hiroshi Kagawa of Tokyo in 2006. Hiroshi was head of  Yohan, Inc. It was the largest distributor of English language books in Japan. We wouldn’t have been able to stay open otherwise. We had run out of money. Anyway, I liked Hiroshi. And he made a pretty good stab at  putting Cody’s back on its feet again.

I kept running the store for another year. But financial concerns crept back  to plague the company. The store was unraveling. And I just couldn’t put it back together again. So I left  and with relief. I didn’t know exactly what I would do next. Given my experience of being a bookseller my whole adult life, I believed my future lay in something like sacking groceries at Safeway.

One night in January, I woke up and realized that I might be good  literary agent. You know, try my hand at the other end of the publishing food chain. I jumped into it. I managed not to think of how audacious that decision was and how little I knew about what I intended to do. It’s hard starting out again when you are 60. Particularly if you had done the same work at the same company for 30 years.  I know a lot more now, and I think I might even be good at this job. I certainly enjoy doing it every day. I only wish I had started my agency sooner. And I still have a lot to learn. I’m very grateful to the other agents who have been so generous with their time and wisdom.

About the time Cody’s closed, Alex Beckstead began showing his documentary: Paperback Dreams  .   The movie was  aired last fall in multiple national markets on PBS television.  Alex spent 2 years filming Paperback Dreams. It was about the struggles of Cody’s and Kepler’s to stay alive in hard times. He wasn’t expecting to document the demise of my store. But that was exactly what he did. It was hard for me to watch this movie. Alex kept dragging me out to public showings. Once I cried. Then I stopped going. I felt that the movie managed to document every mistake I made for several years. Leslie told me that I was being hard on myself and  that no one else saw it that way. Alex agreed. But it didn’t make it easier to watch the movie.

Even though I wasn’t working at the store when Cody’s closed, I really went into a tail spin after it happened. I developed classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The weirdest thing that happened is that I began to feel like the last 30 years of my life didn’t really happen. It wasn’t quite amnesia. It was more like it had been a dream. No, actually,  more like a dream of a dream.

I found  that when I drove to Berkeley, I always tried to avoid  going up Telegraph Avenue. And to this day, I can’t go to Union Square.

But recently, I have found that I’m okay  thinking  about all those years again. After all, here I am writing about it.  There were a lot of things that caused the store to close. Things that probably had very little to do with me.  But more than that, I’m starting to realize that we did some pretty good things over the years. And I have a lot to be proud of. And so does everyone who worked there.

People stop me on the street all the time and tell me how much Cody’s meant to them and how important it was in their lives or even how it changed their lives. That makes me feel pretty good.

When Cody’s closed its doors for the last time, they put up a sign that said: “Cody’s is closed. Thank you”. It wasn’t a very eloquent farewell. But to be fair to the folks who worked there, I doubt there was much  time to think about being eloquent. These closings are usually pretty messy affairs.

I wanted to say something though. I wanted to say what Cody’s really meant to me and  what it meant to so many other people. I wanted to summarize 50 years in just a few words. So I wrote this:

On June 20 Cody’s Books  closed its doors forever. People will argue the causes of Cody’s closing. But I have no doubts on this matter. Cody’s was the victim of history.

 

But it is less significant how one dies than how one lives. In this respect, Cody’s acquitted itself with honor and dignity.  At the end of the day,  when the record is written; it will be remembered that Cody’s added immeasurably to the life of the mind; that it  profoundly enriched people’s lives; that it gave back more than it took; and that it was obedient to its own ideals.

 

The doors close. The lights go out. The steadfast and courageous employees move on to new lives. Other book  stores will come to serve Cody’s customers. But there will always be a place in our hearts for Cody’s. And it will  serve as an inspiration for those who seek a better world.

 

Good bye, Cody’s and good night. You have earned your rest.