Sunday, August 5, 2012

Saving Indie Bookstores. That's all you've got?

When I see a headline like “How to Save an Indie Bookstore” I tend to drop everything and get excited.  

In this case, the Washington Post article described an extraordinary retreat convened by the new owner of Kepler’s legendary bookstore in Palo Alto.   Like dozens of great but troubled bookstores, Kepler’s is thinking big about how to re-invent itself.   But inviting eighty smart people from around the country to spend three days brainstorming a future for the store has to be the most ambitious and promising approach yet.

So why did the fruits of their deliberations- at least as reported by the Post- seem so dispiriting?  Conducted by consultants wielding their usual tools- magic markers, easel paper, and jargon (“confusion is functional!”)- the fourteen hours of discussion brought forth eight “foundational principles” upon which a reborn, successful independent bookstore can be built.  They are:

1. Be financially sustainable.
2. Have a clearly defined mission.
3. Be dedicated to community outreach.
4. Serve as a gathering place for creative events and social events.
5. Support life-long learning and literary education.
6. Sell books in any form, on any platform.
7. Maintain a virtual presence, with technology fully integrated into the store.
            8. Provide a carefully curated selection of books

My initial reaction was that the order seems backward.  Surely a carefully crafted selection of books is the most important ingredient in a quality bookstore, not the end result.  And surely the end result of doing all the right things is financial sustainability, not the starting point.  If it were so easy to “be financially sustainable” I suspect some of the very smart booksellers who have gone dark in the past decade would have just tried that.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into the ordering of the principles.  So let’s say that the list is actually random.  And let’s further stipulate that a job I love depends on people figuring out an answer to the question of how to keep and grow independent bookselling.   I will even concede that they are all good ideas.
But my question remains: Is this the best we can do?  A list of bland nostrums and generalities that just about any book lover in the country could have generated with a little thought?

It’s a profoundly tough problem and most of the arguments for bookstores are of the cheerleading locavore variety- impassioned pleas to patronize your local shop lest it disappear.  (Here’s this week’s earnest example.)  These are well-meaning and true, and perhaps they are effective somewhere.  But I don’t think there are enough potential book buyers left to be convinced by this argument who haven’t been already.   A business plan built on hoping customers stick with you out of guilt, or because they just like the idea of a neighborhood bookstore, is not enough.

Two words that don't appear on the Kepler’s focus group list: authenticity and love.  Every bookstore I relish is stamped by both, and they aren’t things that can be imposed or conjured up. 

An authentic bookstore is a cool bookstore, regardless of its particular inventory slant or personality. 

Back in the eighties, I used to do a lot of camping trips.  My boyfriend preferred the wilderness, but if we were within fifty miles of a city I’d never been to I’d usually persuade him to spend a couple hours there.  Downtowns, an obvious starting point in an unfamiliar city, had already lost their interest as department stores and shops disappeared.  So where exactly to invest an afternoon was an urgent issue.

But I knew that if you could find the cool, local, independent bookstore, you would probably also stumble upon a cool and interesting neighborhood (meaning it had a pre-Starbucks coffee shop and stores selling quirky gadgets.)   I remember once looking up bookstores in the Cincinnati Yellow Pages, and guessing on the basis of the ads that Drew’s would be the cool shop, and indeed it was a fantastic store (alas, long gone) in a great neighborhood (Hyde Park.)

Being a “locus of cool” is definitely a tangible social asset, but it would look ridiculous on a bookstore survival to-do list.  (Number one: “Be cool!”)  

If I can say so without taking any credit for it, the Harry W Schwartz Bookshop, where I learned bookselling, was about the coolest spot in Milwaukee in the late eighties and early nineties.  Interesting out-of-towners would regularly drop by asking for recommendations on where to eat, where to hear music, which neighborhoods to visit, how to spend a couple free hours.  People moving to town would come in to ask us where the cool place to look for an apartment would be.  And visiting celebrities who had time to kill were drawn to the bookshop.  (There was something really intimate about selling poetry books to three of the Manhattan Transfer.)

Where do out of town hipsters go now that so many major cities don’t have a general indie bookstore to help with urban navigation?  I guess the local indie coffee shop has taken over that job, though baristas seem too busy to be an avant-garde information desk.  And there's google.  And perhaps my idealized authentically cool neighborhoods don’t even exist like they used to anyway.
I don’t have a plan for reinvigorating bookstores but I do know that the authentic ones have a better shot at keeping my business.  What’s authentic?  You know it when you see it.  But it probably didn't grow from a focus group check list.

Last week I was in Winnipeg, and as I passed through Canada Customs I had the usual initial round of questions from a dour, no-nonsense agent:  What’s your business in Canada?  Are you bringing anything in?  What’s your relationship with guns?

But when I told her that I was a book rep and would be seeing McNally Robinson the next day, a surprise smile cracked her bureaucratic mask and she gushed “I love that store!”

Somehow, the survival of independent bookselling depends on creating that moment, over and over and over.