Monday, October 09, 2006

Stayin' alive, stayin' alive...

In today's Los Angeles Times, there's a story about how independent bookstores that want to stay alive pretty much need to do more than just sell books. They need to sell food, hold performances, form membership programs, and hire employees who can talk books--imagine!

Interestingly, the piece also talks about how there's been a turnaround, that indie bookstores are opening at a rate of "60, 70, 80 stores" each year.

Sounds great to me.

What do you think about bookstores needing to take on additional roles, other than just selling books?


Don said...

I've long been a bookstore junkie ever since while still in college when I taught typesetting seminars all over the country, I would rip out the pages from the hotel yellow pages which listed all the local bookstores and visit every single one (more or less, after one embarrassing incident in Denver, I started to look for warning signs that I was about to enter an "adult" bookstore). After graduation once I had a car, I spent almost $1000 on my first visit to the bookstores on 3rd street promenade back when there were bookstores on 3rd street promenade.

The most important thing, I think that a bookstore needs to have is a knowledgeable staff. I quickly learned that most chains were going to be useless and they almost always had the same 10,000 titles so once I'd been to one mainstream new book store, I'd been to them all. Seeing Gabriel Garcia Marquez shelved under M was a sign of a subliterate staff. Similarly having separate "fiction" and "literature" shelves (which curiously often had the same author in both sections).

Consolidation of chains has actually helped a bit with this, paradoxically enough. Not all Borders or Barnes and Nobles are created equal and this is a good thing. They seem to give the local managers some leeway in determining how to stock their shelves.

But what I want from a bookstore more than anything else are employees who love books and can point me at books that I wouldn't have ever known about. The owner of Arundel Books on 3rd street did a good job of this, as did some of the other small used bookstores on the west side and in Santa Monica. I imagine that someday I will write the book on English Catholic poets that the owner of the Sam: Johnson bookstore on Venice encouraged me to write 15 years ago.

The rest of it is all incidental. A nice supply of comfortable chairs is nice. Yes, customers (myself included) might take advantage of that to treat the bookstore as library, but after spending enough time at the store, browsers turn into customers. I can't begin to guess how many visits I paid to Claremont Books & Prints before I made my first purchase there (and I think that actually took place after I spent a day doing some part-time inventory work for Chic Goldsmith).

My plan for my retirement is to have a small used bookstore which will carry books which interest me and will, I hope make enough money to pay the rent and utilities, the rest who cares.

oglethorpe said...

Barbara - your blog was worthwhile if only to enable me to read the magnificent Don's comment.

Anonymous said...

Hmm....a backhanded compliment, Ogle? No worries, I like Don, too.

Deborah said...

We have a family owned book store in my suburban NJ town that seems to be succeeding in the shadows of 2 mega B&Ns and several Borders all within a 10 mile radius.

Part of their success is their collaboration with our local library. We use the book store to sell all the books associated with most library speaker events, including a mega annual author luncheon with over 600 attendees.

Our bookstore also features weekly author events in the store. Other "gimmicks" include Harry Potter, American Girl slumber parties, and a toy/book/crafts section for kids. They also carry all the books that are in our k-12 school program.

IRENE said...

Both my husband and myself owned bookshops at some stage of our lives, at one point we both owned a bookshop each, so I can relate. We did have people siting around and immersing themselves in philosophical discussions, style, politics, and yes, cooking. And we did serve different varieties of coffee and tea and homemade sweet and savory treats!
I think what people who care are looking for in many fields, is knowledge, of course, the possibility to find out about books that are not paid advertised trash, and the personal connection and trust one can rarely find in the big chains.
So, I am glad to hear about the revival of independent bookstores. I hope it becomes a sign of changing times.

Crazy Diamond said...

As long as all businesses are treated as simple revenue generators by local government, the bookstores will have to continue to offer various forms of entertainment to attract customers, and even to keep the ones they have. It seems to me the need to make enough to pay the taxes is what keeps most of the (sadly, best-selling) garbage on prominent display.

I don't know about Don's comment re: knowledgeable staff. I'm not sure how possible that is.
Very few indie bookstores I've been in have had any clue what I was talking about when I described the subjects I wanted. Sure, they knew a lot about books on the subjects they were interested in, but the truly eclectic reader is a rare beast. My own preference is wide aisles and readily available ladders so I can do my own browsing. And the place has to smell nice, too. I have very little sense of smell, so I know if I can smell the mustiness, the shop must be poorly kept.

Comfy chairs I can see as essential, although I tend to get my books and go home or to a park to read them.

Caryn Leschen said...

Hi Barbara!
Real "face-time" bookstores do need to do things that can't be done online, so people will want to go there in person. Readings and panels of course are important. But also, the cafe thing is something compelling too. I went to a Barnes and Noble in the burbs so I could work quietly in the cafe and not be running into anyone I know, borrowed an unusual thesaurus (I was writing, what? something technical, I think, that wasn't too thrilling, like Help pages) and by the end of the evening I couldn't live without the thesaurus so I bought it. Like a reference library, with an option to buy--how often have we wanted to do that?! "I'll take the Guide to Grants for Writers!! please. Other events like the Harry Potter parties when those come out make a big difference to the community, especially with kid's books.

Love the blog, it has a nice tone.