This post first appeared yesterday at MyFriendAmysBlog.com. Today you can visit her to see a great post about supporting public libraries. Amy commissioned me to write this piece as part of her series on the different places we get our books, and why.
As booklovers and avid readers we have a wide array of choices when it comes to how to get books. We can shop at chain stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble, or go online for steep discounts. We can buy used books- often very cheaply, and we can trade books for free using web sites like Bookmooch and PaperbackBookSwap.
But where does that leave the independent bookstore? Most independent bookstores can't overwhelm you with the vast selection of a big chain, or offer the steep discounts of Amazon, or let us recycle (and a get a bargain) with used books or trading. All over the country independent bookstores having been feeling the effects of the poor economy and the changing book business, fueled in no small way by the discounts and deals available at stores that do large volumes of selling and can afford to live on razor-thin profit margins. No matter what, customers shopping indies will pay a premium for the privilege.
What do we as readers get for that extra money? First of all, we get a superior selection. Not necessarily a larger selection- most neighborhood indies cannot match the sheer square footage of a Barnes and Noble superstore and the thousands of titles it can stock- but superior selection (although large indies like Powells in Portland, Oregon, The Strand in Manhattan and Green Apple Books in San Francisco could give any chain a run for its money). Selections at chain stores might be bigger but they also tend to be blander- aisles and aisles of the same hot new releases and genre fiction and classics and cookbooks and so on you see at every other chain. I've walked into chain stores all over the country and they are all the same. At indies, every store is different. Books at indies are hand-picked by owners and staff to reflect the individual needs of the community they serve- and often that "community" is a neighborhood, or a specific demographic. Independent bookstores in my area make it a point to offer a smattering of off-the-beaten-path material to appeal to diverse populations, such as the indie bookstore that always has the popular new release from Israel, or the new small-press award winner that was just written up in the local paper, or the new kid's book covering local history. Buying decisions at chains are made at company HQ and individual stores have little or no freedom to select books with that level of sensitivity to customer needs.
Indies can take chances on local authors and small-press and self-published books that would never stand a chance at a chain. The Lace Reader, that big hit of last year, started out as a self-published novel that benefited enormously by promotion from an independent bookseller in Salem, Massachusetts. Indies in my area carry novels and poetry I would never see in a chain, and thus provide a crucial outlet for independent voices. If indie bookstores went away, so would many of the publishers and authors that rely on them and with them much of what's worth reading. Indies also stock local magazines and self-published zines that would never find room on the shelves of a chain, giving those writers a voice and an audience. Today's zinester or self-published writer is tomorrow's emerging master, so the future of writing and reading depends on these voices being heard.
Indie bookstores can also make it their business to specialize in a specific area and delve deeper than even a general independent bookseller. In my community, within two miles of my home I can visit an independent bookstore specializing in travel books, and another specializing in poetry, and another specializing in science fiction and fantasy, and another specializing in foreign-language books, and another specializing in manga. Travel a little further and there are bookstores stocking exclusively Jewish-interest books, others stocking gay and lesbian subjects, and others catering to immigrant populations from all over the world- Russia, Korea, Central America and more. African-American bookstores in urban areas have been crucial to the proliferation of urban fiction, a once-marginal category now gone mainstream. There is not a chain bookstore in existence that can match what even one of these independent bookstores can offer its customers.
But, I hear you say, what about Amazon? You can get anything at Amazon. Oftentimes that's true. But what you can't get at Amazon is service, or the opportunity to browse- both of which are crucial to the book-buying experience. You can find any nearly any book you want in that database, but to search for a book you have to be aware of it first. Indie bookstores lay their varied and eclectic selections out for you to pick up, skim, flip through, and read. There you can wander over to the next aisle or peruse the tables for something new or unexpected every time you visit. The best you can do at Amazon is scroll through a dozen or so "suggestions" that seem arbitrary. At a bookstore you have the opportunity to ask questions of knowledgeable staff- professionals who have dedicated their careers to knowing books and sharing that knowledge with you, the reader. Staff at indie bookstores are some of the smartest people around when it comes to books- and because the stores are small and the customers regular and local, staff get to know them and get to know how to please them. Although many chain booksellers are excellent and know their stuff, big chains get such crowds and so much turnover among staff and customers alike that they don't always have the opportunity to really hone their expertise. And indies appreciate their customers- because they know you have other options, they appreciate your business and show it. At a chain, I'm just another customer; at an indie, I'm valued.
Which brings me to my last point- community. Independent bookstores provide community and a gathering-place for their customers. Whether you're talking about a stay-at-home mom who comes in for storytime with her kids and leaves with a playdate and a lunch partner, or a recent arrivals from anywhere in the world who comes in for the latest book from home and leave with new friends, or a nerd like me who comes in for literary fiction and is pleased to see others reading the same things, there's nothing like an independent bookstore for letting readers know they're not alone and that there are other people right nearby who share their interests and needs- and that people are there to meet those needs. As wonderful as books are, it's relationships with other people that make life worthwhile and independent bookstores provide that benefit far better than any warehouse or website ever could. Reading is a wonderful solitary activity but the magic only really happens when a reader meets another reader to talk about books.