Tom Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full was the publishing event of 1990s. But staff at the Vancouver, Canada, Chapters had never heard of it. The bookstore chain is the Canadian version of Borders or Barnes and Noble. I was there a few years ago with a friend when he inquired when Wolfe’s long-awaited novel would be in stock. The sales clerk had trouble finding it in the computer. “We have a Thomas Wolfe,” he offered. No, we weren’t looking for the long-dead author of Look Homeward, Angel. Apparently publishing two acclaimed books that were turned into movies and being the founder of a new school of journalism isn’t enough these days for an employee of a downtown bookstore in one of the country’s biggest cities to know your name. The scene ended with my friend, almost apoplectic, storming off.
Loving the rise of the chain bookstore is part of the free-marketeer bible. Bemoaning the fate of the independent bookstore is for whiny liberals. Both can agree that chains are pushing out independents. In 1991, chains had 32% of the market in adult books; six years later, it was only 17%. (Although, of course, some of the loss was likely to online booksellers like Amazon.) In just two years in the mid-1990s, over 150 independents closed their doors.
I don’t think anyone can deny that there is much to love about the superstores. The selection, in general, is unsurpassed. And in a wide range of subjects–from literary fiction to self-help, cookbooks to fantasy. They also sell a large stock of magazines, CDs and DVDs, journals, cards, and gift wrap, making them one-stop shopping meccas where you can find something for anybody. Many have computers to tell you what exactly they have and where to find it. Chains have sprouted up everywhere, sometimes in neighborhoods that never had a bookstore before. They discount part of their stock, usually bestsellers, of a product that previously was rarely sold for less than list price. Sounds like a booklover’s paradise.
So why, then, when I think back on my experiences of book superstores, is it always the bad that comes to mind? Ignorant clerks who know little of the product they sell. Loud teenagers treating the store like their bedrooms. My best bookstore experiences have almost invariably been at independents. There I have found the unexpected, the rare. And communicated with other people who care passionately about poetry and prose.
I must confess to having ambivalent feelings about the chains. I easily recognize all the positives; I regularly visit the stores myself. But I can’t help but feel they are a little soulless, and perhaps less than harmless.
The most obvious comparison is with the staff. Even the superstores’ defenders must admit that service lags at the chains. Superstore staffers, on the whole, just aren’t that interested in books. They are only retail employees, like those at Wal-Mart or Target, not those who see their job as something of a vocation. You can’t engage them in any sort of literary conversation and they can’t offer recommendations. I’ve never had an interesting chat with an employee at Borders. But I will always remember fondly my experience at a tiny bookshop in Seattle. The clerk saw me flipping through the Graham Greene books and started to recount how much he enjoyed Monsignor Quixote and how I must read it.
Service is important to people who don’t know exactly what they want. Which is why it is somewhat elitist to herald a world filled with only chain superstores. It is easy for the intelligentsia to walk into Barnes and Noble and know what to buy. In fact, such people don’t even need a bricks and mortar store–they can just shop online. Perhaps this is one reason they don’t care. Bookstores have been left to the masses. But many people feel a bit bewildered surrounded by thousands of titles, unsure just what to pick. Chain clerks are no help here. If you can even find one.
I was doing some early Christmas shopping last week at Borders. I know a fair amount about children’s literature for someone with no children, but I still felt stumped. At what age group was this book aimed? I’m not sure I know the reading level of a nine-year-old. And this one–would a teenager be interested in it? The section was huge, bursting with titles–but without a helpful soul of whom to ask questions.
But then, I get the feeling you’re not supposed to ask. You’re supposed to grab your New York Times bestseller list title and go. There is usually a single information desk, and you’re lucky if there’s someone sitting behind it. In some ways, these stores impose a single taste on the places they serve, making them a bit less of a community. Each store is almost exactly the same, no matter where you go, like a McDonald’s in Europe. They push the same books, which are almost invariably bestsellers. There is no daring, no displays of the unexpected, no interest in introducing customers to something new.
It’s not quite true that you’re supposed to exit quickly with your copy of Living History. The chains do want you to stick around a while. They don’t just sell books, you know. As I mentioned in my last column, they’re branching out. You can now buy face lotions and cookie cutters. During my last visit to Borders, I saw the Uno card game packaged in a Care Bear box. Really.
Why does this matter? What do I care if a bookstore sells silly gifts in addition to thousands of books? Because in some small way, it lowers the tone. It takes away a bit of the power and mystery of art to place it alongside such things.
The atmosphere at most chains is just not as conducive to the book-buying experience as at the independents. Take the many table and chairs you see in them. They may seem to be inviting, telling browsers that it’s okay to sit and read a while. But what has happened is that it has told people that it’s okay to be there doing your own thing. At the Baltimore Inner Harbor Barnes and Noble, I once found it impossible to look at any books in the mystery section. Two teenagers were lying sprawled out on the floor, intently reading books on astrology. Getting close to them, making noise–none of this would make them move. And of course no clerk was to be found. But this is the logical result of the attitude that these stores are there for you to do whatever you please in.
Now I worry that I’m sounding elitist myself. I’m reminded of a recent conversation with my mother. She yearns for Chapters, the Canadian book chain, to open up shop at the city near her. She said she used to spend hours at one in the city where she used to live. That is hours spent among books, and that is time well spent, after all.
Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a senior analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire