HOLT UNCENSORED #30
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, January 19, 1999
HOPE FOR INDEPENDENTS?
A LESSON FROM THE BOOKMARK
THE FIGHT BREWS IN CAPITOLA
THE BIG QUESTIONS
(NEXT WEEK BACK TO BOOK REVIEWING)
HOPE FOR INDEPENDENTS?
"I want to know flat out what you think," said the bookseller to a group of about 100. "What is our future? Is there hope for independent bookstores? Or have the chains and Amazon already won?"
The scene was the keynote session of a conference called The Literary Congress, a series of meetings about the business of the book business for independent booksellers, publishers and book services, held over the weekend in Phoenix.
The bookseller's questions nearly the stopped the discussion about in-store promotions, chain-store competition, That Movie ("You've Got Mail"), rumors about the American Booksellers Association's new website for independents (soon to be announced, we hear), sales tax (why do bookstores have to pay it and Amazon doesn't?) and that dreaded word (is it a fad or a new way of life?), "e-commerce."
The two panelists at the meeting took opposite sides. "Yes, I think there IS hope," offered Holt Uncensored, admittedly the "pie-in-the-sky" speaker of the morning. "Well," said second panelist Andy Ross, owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley, Calif., having expressed not a little bit of outrage at the problems independents must face that chains and Amazon.com do not. "Let's just say I'M hopeless about this one," and everyone laughed.
You have to hand it to small gatherings like this for the good humor that seems to bubble up out of nowhere, making unbearable facts somehow bearable. Unbearable fact #1: Every time another mega-merger concentrates decision-making into fewer and fewer hands, the book industry is in trouble; literature is in trouble; democracy is in trouble, and guess who's paying the price? U.F. #2: Every time an independent bookstore closes, NOTHING can replace it. #3: Not a fact but a fear expressed throughout the conference: So many bookstores have closed that the number of good independent stores is down to - could this be true? - 2200.
But participants at LTC kept working on practical ideas that seemed fresh, positive, "shareable" and yes, hopeful: Here are a few I picked up and talked about at the morning panel:
1) Famous authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Adrienne Rich are taking terrific public stands in support of independents. Many others are on the independents' side but fear retaliation or loss of support from the chains if they speak out. So what would happen if you remove the political factor and ask little of authors except maybe an hour or half-hour's time?
The idea is simplicity itself: Independent booksellers who feature author appearances in their store could host a private reception of, say, 30-40 minutes immediately before the reading or autographing. There people who donate, say, $25, $50 or $100 to the store's special fund (whatever it is) could hear their favorite author speak in more intimate surroundings while sharing a glass of wine. The occasion could be a lot of fun, raise money for a good cause (that's you, bub!) and allow those book lovers who constitute the core of your customer base a chance to support independents AND shake the hand of their favorite author.
WHO LOVED YA (FIRST) BABY revisited: Andy Ross certainly could not have been angrier at the way Frank McCourt has taken his place with other bestselling authors in TV commercials advertising Barnes & Noble. "Independents discovered McCourt's book, 'Angela's Ashes.' Independents awarded him the ABBY, which is the prize they give for the book they MOST ENJOYED SELLING," Andy fumed. "Now he turns up on TV for Barnes & Noble? I think if he were an honorable man, he would give the ABBY back." More laughter, but they agreed with him.
All right, then, BUT: Could it be that McCourt acted out of ignorance? Would he appear at a private reception to benefit an independent? How could he not?
2) OK, true: Everything is labor-intensive for independents, and booksellers putting in 18-hour days haven't a minute to devote to Great Ideas like #1 above. Yet every independent bookstore has a number of customers who can't express enough how much they love the store, want to help the store, bring in friends to support the store and even volunteer their time to keep the store open.
These customers are ripe and ready to form a Friends of the (Your Name Here) Bookstore much like a Friends of the Library or Friends of the University. This kind of volunteer group is full of energy and can help exhausted staff members by raising money, creating posters, expanding mailing lists, calling city council members, establishing media relationships and so forth.
True, bookstore owners have to work closely with Friends groups to set directions and goals and keep 'em galvanized. But HUGE amounts of work get done in the meantime. That possibility for many burned-out staffers is hope enough
TAKING A LESSON FROM THE BOOKMARK
The keynote session at TLC was particularly heartrending for me because I had just returned from a drive to Tucson that morning to visit the Bookmark, one of the Southwest's oldest and largest bookstores. After 40 years, the Bookmark - surrounded by three chain superstores as well as a variety of mall bookstores, and facing yet another superstore on the way, has announced that will close its doors in March.
"We feel we tried everything," said Brenda Blanton, looking around the low-ceilinged building, its rooms seeming to mushroom out in every direction, its floor sometimes inclining this way and that, its handwritten signs contributing to a decidedly funky feel, its atmosphere one of happy chatter among customers and staff about books in every category.
Advertising, interviews, TV exposure, discount cards, school fairs, community donations, reading clubs, author appearances (Larry McMurtry, Barbara Kingsolver, the late Edward Abbey and others have gone on record to say they were discovered here), even a coffee cart loaded with goodies on the front porch to welcome hungry customers - all this distinguished the Bookmark,
Hailed for many years as one of the top 10 bookstores in the country, its 200,000 titles happily jammed into simple pine shelving made by co-owner Larry Spohn himself, the Bookmark housed those delicious kind of nooks and crannies where book lovers could discover treasures in hundreds of subcategories - especially Arizona history, westerns, children's literature, travel and mysteries.
What was "wrong" with the store? Against what seems in retrospect to be a predatory assault by four chain superstores, could there have been "hope" for the Bookmark? Staff members Jason Shults and Jeff Yanc express the "if we" issues so well - if we had computerized much earlier, or streamlined the ordering, accelerated returns, taken advantage of more cooperative advertising, told customers we were in trouble, galvanized authors' support - well, maybe, maybe, maybe.
The fact is, the store did survive it all for many years. But what it faces now in its present tomblike surroundings is the toughest fact of all: No, there was no "hope" for this store. In an age of chain-store numbness from supermarkets to hardware stores, juice joints to coffee boutiques and toy shops, Americans are so accustomed to streamlined self-service emporia that they feel alienated by what Yanc calls the Bookmark's "unabashedly funky personality."
In an article for the Tucson Weekly, Yanc indicates that what killed the Bookmark more than anything else was the fact that "the store just couldn't help being, well, different. And as difference itself becomes an increasingly ineffective business strategy, the unique and singular must quietly be led out of the building . . . Where does that leave the Tucson book lover? Without choices. While change may be good for the economy, it may not be so healthy for basic First Amendment freedoms of choice and expression."
As a result, Yanc writes, "aside from the obviously Orwellian overtones of thought control that media conglomeration implies, the simple pleasure of discovering a good, offbeat book to read based on your own criteria, without the constant corporate pressure to buy the latest bestseller, is all but lost . . . . . . In the very near future, if a superstore doesn't carry the book you want, where will you go? Nowhere."
But thanks to the renewed energy of Yanc and Shults, hope is on the way (albeit out of the ashes but gad, this store's just down the road from PHOENIX): Customers, authors, staff members and owners believe there's a chance to bring the vitality and character of Bookmark to yet a new store - smaller and more aggressive and more flexible than the other - and restablish the original and perhaps larger and sturdier customer base. More to come on this later.
THE FIGHT BREWS IN CAPITOLA
Now let's take a drive to the picturesque ocean village of Capitola, California, where historic downtown buildings have been preserved and restaurants oozing with local color offer glorious views right from beach.
It's here that a key battle in "the bookstore wars" is emerging, and here that many of the issues so mired in confusion from past battles may find new clarity and resolution.
The independent store under fire is the Capitola Book Cafe, for nearly 20 years a homey and inviting bookstore about a half-mile from the seaside shops. Notable for its rather astounding author events (a good 2 hours away from San Francisco), the Capitola Book Cafe lures tourists and residents alike with its high ceilings, wooden fixtures, original art and photos of local writers (Adrienne Rich buys her New York Times here, and if that ain't a tourist attraction for readers, I don't know what is).
But don't be deceived by the cozy and intimate atmosphere - this is no tiny booknook with a cute but patchy selection of books. It's a roaring retail business run by four owners who have crammed more than 60,000 books into 5400 square feet of selling space.
The cafe has been built in the center of the store (long before superstores ever thought of the idea), and a person could spend days investigating an entire wall of fiction, terrific poetry and children's sections, and nonfiction categories with deep backlist stock that wind all the way around the store. Near the entrance, there's a stunning array of international newspapers, greeting cards you can't get anywhere else and remainders (sale books) that are as diverse as they are inexpensive.
Discounts are big here - bestsellers sell for 30 percent off; teachers and book groups get special prices. The store's website, http://www.cruzio.com/~bookcafe, while definitely a work in progress, has brought the character of the store right onto the screen.
It's interesting to note that Capitola Book Cafe's hefty children's literature department has not made life difficult for Seeds of Change, an inviting and beautifully stocked children's bookstore a half-mile away. Both stores were hurt when a Costco (price club) opened up at a nearby mall, and Amazon.com hit this Silicon Valley bedroom community like a raging storm - but the stores recovered from that, too.
However, in recent years the Capitola Book Cafe has joined the Sierra Club and local groups called WAVE and Friends of Soquel Creek to fight a new strip mall a mile away that could threaten one of the area's most beautiful creeks. Developers of the project recently made a few concessions to environmentalists and been given the go-ahead by city planners. They now propose to build a 25,000-square-foot Borders chain store on the property.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
So here, as has happened in hundreds of towns throughout the country, The Big Fight between existing independent bookstores and a looming chain superstore is underway: The Planning Commission meets later this month, the City Council in February, and in both cases, a number of questions - classic ones for anyone engaged in "the bookseller wars" - have stopped officials in their tracks:
QUESTION #1: How can a community say yes to one bookstore and no to another? Wouldn't that be stifling competition? Since both stores sell books, isn't this a matter of Free Speech and First Amendment protections? Wouldn't it be censorship to keep one in business and the other out?
ANSWER: Thanks to the organizing genius of the Book Cafe's four owners, you can bet the hearings on Borders will be packed with supporters attacking this question from every angle. It certainly is the single most largest question standing in the way o
The most straightforward answer seems to be that city governments make this kind of decision for their communities every day. Take, for example, the restaurants by the beach that give Capitola so much of its character and local identity. At some time or another, city leaders have said yes to one restaurant (an independent), and no to another restaurant (a Denny's, say, or a Chili's or a Boston Market). The reason is simple: Chain restaurants might be cheaper and pay higher rents, but they would easily wipe out the very identity that makes Capitola so attractive to residents and tourists.
The same goes for the Capitola Book Cafe and Seeds of Change: It isn't relevant what product they sell, just as it doesn't matter what kind of food the restaurants serve. These bookstores have attracted people to the area and contribute mightily to the character of the town. If they are threatened by the appearance of a chain store, which of course does nothing to attract people to the area and adds nothing to the character of the town, the decision is easy - the chain goes, the independents stay.
"Many governing bodies, including the City and County of Santa Cruz, have protected locally owned, independent retailers," writes Neal Coonerty of Bookshop Santa Cruz in a letter to the mayor and city council of Capitola. "You are not a rubber stamp. You were elected to define the values and future of your city . . .
"Book Cafe has been a valuable part of Capitola for 25 years. Is it to be discarded so easily? . . . Is market capitalization the sole factor for retail success? Does might make right? In Capitola, the answers are up to you." Putting the burden of the community's destiny on city leaders' shoulders as they face THIS decision about independent bookselling at THIS time may be the most important strategy.
QUESTION #2: Don't Americans want MORE bookstores in their community, not fewer? Wouldn't it be wrong to stop the competitive process just because Borders is bigger and the Capitola Book Cafe is smaller? People are tired of hearing independents say they aren't afraid of competition and then turn around and say a chain store will kill them. Why not let all bookstores compete like everybody else?
ANSWER: The Capitola Book Cafe folk believe that no independent should be asked to compete when the odds are stacked so unfairly against it. They quote Bill Petrocelli of Book Passage, who in a recent article (you can find it at http//:www.bookpassage.com) describes lawsuits brought by independent booksellers against the "illegal price and promotional concessions given to the chains by publishers over a period of many years." The courts, he says, "have agreed with the independents, and several publishers have been forced into accepting consent decrees designed to curb further abuses."
The fact that Penguin was made to pay a whopping $25 million to independents usually convinces even freemarket conservatives that when the playing field is not level, nobody can compete fairly. While it's almost impossible to stop the chains from continuing unfair practices, the American Booksellers Association is trying with yet a third lawsuit.
QUESTION #3: How can you ask the community to reverse something so ingrained in American life as capitalism or saving a buck? If chain stores, price clubs and Amazon.com offer big discounts that independents can't match, you can't stop customers from leaving the independents that charge full price, and it's hardly the job of city officials to favor the independents.
ANSWER: Keeping independent bookstores alive of course contributes a healthy capitalist atmosphere; the irony, however, is that the reason behind Amazon.com's soaring sales is NOT that consumers want to "save a buck."
Let's look at Printers Inc. of Palo Alto, California, for the full answer to this one. It's ironic that this store is soon to close after 20 years in business, even though it has "successfully survived the inroads into sales by Crown's discounting, Costco/Price Club, and super chains," as the owners wrote in a recent announcement to customers. The crusher here is increasingly high rent (sparked by a chain store bid from RiteAid), combined with with the devastating effect of Amazon.com.
Horrified customers have written heartfelt letters referring to Printers Inc.'s passing as "the loss of the soul of the community." Here as elsewhere, the notion that people gravitate to stores and online services because of lower prices is dispelled. Readers say that when they buy from Amazon.com, it's because "we want instant gratification; we are interested in the book now!" and will pay extra money for overnight mailing costs.
At the same time, it's nothing new for local governments to actively help independants for the sake of building up the community. For example, Printers Inc.'s second store, located a few miles away, was given a loan by the City of Mountain View in 1986 to remodel a building on an all too "sleepy" street at the time. Thanks in large part to the bookstore, that street has now become a bustling avenue of "many downtown establishments which pack people in at night," according to the Palo Alto Daily News.
Palo Alto, by contrast, "[doesn't] have any sort of a program to loan businesses money to spark retail development." The reason: "Palo Alto's retail districts are driven by market factors," according to a city official, "noting city intervention hasn't been needed in the past."
Well, that's the sort of approach that's got to change, and only coalitions of independent retailers, banding together with developers, customers and prominent authors can really get in there to make this kind of pitch work. As noted earlier, GAIA Books of Berkeley will close this February but reopen in the year 2000 as a full-fledged community center, thanks in part to redevelopment funds that have helped the new building's owner and GAIA create a place for conferences, performances, an art gallery, a cafe, classes, bookstore, author appearances, intereactive website and PBS hookups. A great deal of money must be raised by GAIA and its supporters, but with city funds behind it and the developer moving ahead, the "done deal" aspect has its own attractions.\r