As I’m sure I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I’m not happy about the decline of bookstores in the digital age. I’ve spent countless hours wandering through bookshops of all sizes, listening for The Call, entranced by the simple notion of all those possibilities. Any one of those books could have been some sort of key into who I am, or who I was to become.

Now I have a library that can keep me occupied for the rest of my days. It’s likely I’ll never work my way through, but I’m happy to be surrounded by all these volumes and all they have to tell me. (Here’s a decent — but a bit obvious and silly — essay about how you can never keep up. I mean, you should probably read it, but don’t feel obliged.)

For the most part, I feel like I’ve left bookstores behind. If I spy a nice indie one, I’ll stop in and take a look around. On a jaunt through NYC a few weeks ago, I made a few pickups at The Strand and St. Mark’s Books (mainly, I just re-upped my supply of Hicksville and Cultural Amnesia, to give as gifts, but I did find a book that caught my eye, called I Bought Andy Warhol).

The chain bookstores? Well, let me share with you a pair of stories from the past week.

Last Friday, I stopped in at a not-yet-closing-down Borders during lunch. It’s around the corner from my office, and I didn’t want to head back to work right away. I looked through the magazine section first. I picked up Esquire’s Black Book for spring/summer ’11, because that’s who I am, okay? Quit being so judgmental and just praise my newfound fashion sense!

I drifted through the store for a bit. I took a look at the Graphic Novel (oh, how I hate that term) section, where I saw Dan Clowes’ new book, Mister Wonderful. I decided to be nice to Borders and pick it up. I mean, they are hemorrhaging money, but maybe I could help them out a little. But then I decided to check the Amazon price for the book with my phone. I thought, “It’s a $20 book: if it’s $14 or higher on Amazon, I’ll just buy it here.”

Amazon turned out to be selling it for $10.50, almost 50% off. So I bought it through my Amazon app there and then, figuring I could wait a few days for it.

I still had that Esquire special ish, so I walked up front with that. There was a line 12 people long, with two cashiers working. I put the Black Book back on the shelf and left

Is it weird that I don’t mind waiting a few days for Mister Wonderful to be delivered to my door, but I do mind standing on line for 10 minutes with old people and housewives during my lunch hour to buy a magazine?

On Tuesday, I stopped at Paramus Park mall to grab some Chik-Fil-A (grilled chicken sandwich sans bun, since I’m triyng to keep kosher for Pesach). There’s a Books-A-Million in the food court area and, even though I once vowed to boycott that chain (they wouldn’t carry a book I was publishing), I thought I’d look around and see if they had any remainders that caught my eye.

I was happy to discover Tony Judt’s book Reappraisals, for a mere $3 in hardcover. Of course, I checked my Amazon app, but found they were selling that edition for $10, and the Kindle version for $14.99 (!). I thought, “Well, I’ll pick this up and maybe read a chapter over my lunch.”

I walked up to the three cash registers, where I waited two full minutes for a cashier to sell me the book. None showed up, and no employee was in sight of the register area. I put the book down on the register and left.

Yes, I took a picture before leaving:


So I got my grilled chicken and waffle fries (not made with corn oil, or so they said), sat down at a table, tapped the Kindle App on my iPhone, and started reading a bio/sketch/essay from Cultural Amnesia, picking up just where I left off with my e-book the night before.

I feel sad for smaller, independent bookstores that can’t survive the transition to digital. I don’t know what their value proposition will be, to entice readers to spend more than they “have” to on books. But the big chains? They can suck my nuts. They’re so dysfunctional, they can’t even sell me something when I want to buy it.

P.S.: St. Mark’s Books is where my wife & I first laid eyes on each other. I’ll always buy a little something there; that’s my idea of a value proposition.

3 Replies to “Books-A-Nil”

  1. I am going to ask an honest question. It is not intended to be obnoxious.

    If you are such a fan of independent bookstores, why do you shop at Amazon? Any print book you can buy from Amazon is available from an independent bookseller. Many, if not most of the e-books available from Amazon are available from independent booksellers (and were, even before Google Books, at stores such as Powell’ I understand the desire to save money; a given (new) book is the same book wherever you buy it, so why not buy it from the seller charging the lowest price? That is a perfectly defensible position to take, but one cannot do that and then lament the decline of independent booksellers.

    If the survival of independent booksellers is important to you, then you can pay the higher prices they charge for books. For many e-books, however, Amazon can no longer undercut other sellers, so purchasing your e-books from an independent seller no longer requires you to pay any more for those books.

    As for the economics of chain stores, all national retailers (in all segments) impose very tight payroll budgets on their stores. Managers must run their stores with payroll budgets that can be even lower than 10% of sales. It isn’t easy to run a store with a scanty, low-paid, poorly motivated staff. I would say that the experiences you describe at Borders or Books-A-Million aren’t al that different that experiences you’d have at a Rite Aid drugstore or a K-Mart or a Staples. This is what the quarterly-results-driven market analysts that rule the stock markets dictate. It’s no wonder Amazon does well versus chain stores of all types.

    Maybe if you give some of the business you currently give to Amazon to independent booksellers you’d help keep them going. Maybe not. It might not be possible for them to survive the public’s move to digital books, as any technology-heavy business favors companies with deep pockets.

    I don’t have any real answers here. I don’t know where my business is going. I am just asking lots of questions because I believe you’d have some interesting responses to them.

    1. Good question(s)! And thanks for not taking an indignant/obnoxious tone; I appreciate the civility.

      The basic answer is: I live in suburban NJ and the closest good indie bookstore (Montclair Book Center) is half an hour away. That may not sound like much, but making a trip out there on a whim isn’t so easy, because of work, my dogs, and my wife’s commuting schedule. Of course, there are still some great bookstores in NYC, but that’s an hour away, with $8 toll at the bridge/tunnel and a minimum of $20 in parking. So you could say that I’m both cheap and I value my time.

      More complicatedly, I’ve achieved a sort of equilibrium with my library and my mortality, so I don’t buy as many prose books as I once did. Instead, I spend time with the 1,500 or so volumes downstairs in my library. New books, the ones most rapidly and heavilty discounted, don’t mean so much to me. In fact, most of my physical Amazon purchases are of comic collections (or, God forbid, “graphic novels”). I just looked over my Amazon orders for the last six months, and the only prose books I purchased were three Arden editions of Shakespeare plays. Everything else was comics, electronics, home goods, and DVDs.

      As far as e-books go, I’m already locked in with a Kindle e-reader. Its syncing capability (as I mentioned, my iPad, Kindle, phone, and home and office computers can all pick up exactly where I left off with another device) is a major factor in why I stick with it, along with the 70 or 80 books I’ve already purchased in that format. (Frankly, I find the publishers’ pricing schemes to be abhorrent, short-sighted and self-defeating, but that’s a topic for another post.) Given that I travel a bunch for work and I’m running out of shelf-space downstairs, I think e-books will make up a large percentage of future book purchases. (But I was still willing to pick up that Judt collection, if only they would’ve had a single staffer anywhere near the front of their store at B-A-M.)

      I love indie stores for the serendipity factor, for the title you didn’t know you wanted, but those places can’t stay in business by catering to my stochastic tastes. Trust me: when I went to Portland last summer for business, the only can’t-miss stop I had for the trip was Powell’s. I loved the place, even if they managed not to have the only two books I was looking to pick up (Bob Colacello’s Warhol memoir, Holy Terror, and Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars).

      Thanks again for taking the time to write. I really do lament the loss of indie stores, but I don’t know how many of them will survive the multiple whammies of discount sellers, e-books, and a seemingly shrinking general audience of people who make time to read.

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