Saturday, May 22, 2010


It was sort of a tough week to begin selling the fall lists. One Chicago appointment I had with a chain buyer was truncated because the buyer had just been let go. The same afternoon, I showed up for my appointment with one of the smartest art museum buying teams in the country only to learn that one of them had been laid off this week.

To top it off, I ducked into a doorway on Wabash to make a couple phone calls and found that I was standing across the street from the empty shell that was once the spectacular Prairie Avenue Bookshop, one of the saddest of the many sad closings last year.

But then I ended the week with a full day with the Seminary Coop/57th Street Bookstore bibliophiles in Hyde Park, followed by a morning with the irrepressible Roberta Rubin at the Book Stall in Winnetka. Both of these encounters left me optimistic again.

There are not many apparent similarities between these two bookselling dynamos on opposite sides of what is irritatingly called “Chicagoland.” But one big similarity is that they are both in books for the long haul, and see a future in the printed word.

Last week I came across an offhand reference in a news article that instantly clarified what I loathe about the corporate world. In a story that aimed to explain who knew what when amongst the derivative traders who brought on the meltdown, some anonymous broker acknowledged that everybody knew what they were doing was dangerous and not sustainable. But he said the widespread attitude was IBGYBG, i.e. “I’ll Be Gone, You’ll Be Gone” before the piper need be paid.

Of course, I’ve heard variations of this cynical sentiment fairly often among my colleagues in the book business. I’ve said something like it myself. It often takes a form like “I’d love to get another five years out of books but after that, I don’t care if they disappear. IBGYBG.”

But when a couple bitter reps exchange this sentiment over beers, we don’t have the power to bring down the entire economy with our cynicism.

The more I think of it, IBGYBG explains a lot. Global warming? It’s so complicated and hard, and anyway, IBGYBG. The national debt? Same thing. It’s a kind of necrophilic libertarianism, and once you realize the attitude is widespread enough to have its own acronym, you notice it everywhere.

Bookselling and publishing is the antithesis of this thinking. We have many terrifying unknowns in our future, but the book (in whatever format) has long-term staying power.

Unlike the gangsters making millions trading commodities they neither understand nor care about, we sell a product we actually love.

Publishers routinely spend years (sometimes decades) bringing a book project to fruition. (See Harvard’s exciting resurrection of the 1960 series Image of the Black in Western Art this year, among other examples).

People under thirty- even apparently sane ones- still contemplate and plan for a future in bookstores.

Bookstore patrons react with alarm and consternation when their favorite shops are in jeopardy, as did the flood of Hyde Park fans of Seminary Coop when word leaked out that the store’s building is being converted to (speaking of retrograde economic attitudes) the Milton Friedman Institute. (Not to worry, the Coop is safe!)

And not to get too anecdotal about it, but I was struck by how many people on the rush hour red line up to Addison the other day were deeply engrossed in books printed on paper.

There are many unknowns in the book future. In the face of the widespread misconception that except for the cost of paper and shipping a book should be free, how can sale of digital content be monetized? Will Google’s muscle-flexing in the book industry ultimately be a force for good or evil? And will there eventually be a gadget so alluring that we will forsake everything for its pleasures, including books?

But the book industry ethos seems to be WBHYBH- we’ll be here, you’ll be here. We’re not sure how, we’re working out the details, but the resilience of booksellers and their products is the perfect antidote to the hateful cynicism of the corporate death wish.

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