walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Utopia vs. Reality (Independent Bookstores)


This was originally in/on Publishers Lunch.

Here, Jack McKeown and Don Linn argue that the Borders bankruptcy and wave of store closures is an opportunity for independent bookstores to rebound. They don't mean existing independents; they mean a wave of _new_ independent bookstores. Here is how McKeown and Linn argue for demand for these stores:

First, just because chain stores closed due to internet bookstores and their arbitrary shelf space does not mean there is no market for independent booksellers, specifically ones with: "finely curated inventory, hand-selling, and a robust program of local events and community outreach", which would simultaneously make use of internet sales themselves with "programs such as Google eBooks and the American Bookseller Association's IndieCommerce web-hosting engine."

Second, because even McKeown and Linn recognize it's going to be a little tricky financing starting up all these stores, they propose a special purpose financing vehicle, a Neighborhood Bookstore Development Bank. Apparently something like this has helped get groceries into neighborhoods without them and bookstores are just as essential as grocery stores. I mean, every urban planner knows that, right? (<-- Part of their argument, sarcasm mine.)

Third, they bring some numbers to the table in arguing a "supply gap" for bookstores (that is, that people out there are pining for a neighborhood bookstore. Lots of them). The argument is as follows:

Borders stores closing are more than five miles from the nearest independent. (They produce this sentence, and if you can make it mean anything, you're a lot more clever than they are: "The average and mean distances are 13.2 miles and 10.7 miles respectively to the nearest independent.")

"Most of these one hundred-plus sites are close-in suburbs, within commuting range of top urban markets."

"we can estimate that about 15 million Americans will be directly affected by the sudden reduction in bookstore availability."

Yes! They did indeed just argue that closing a Borders in a suburb affects everyone in a nearby city. Kind of a weird way to think about the world.

I can't bring myself to reproduce the dollar argument.

"Even if a substantial majority, say sixty percent, of the supply gap is captured by Amazon, B&N, or by a conversion to digital reading, there remain tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of annual book sales up for grabs in towns like Southbury scattered across the United States."

Perhaps the best bit, however, is this:

people don't like reading on screens. we know this because they say so on surveys.

especially people over 45 don't like reading on screens. they buy most of the books

they'll buy even more books as they retire and become an even bigger fraction of the book market

so obviously, print wins.

Apparently, books are going to age out and die with the boomers. Wow.

I don't know what to make of arguments like this. I've done my best to faithfully summarize it, because I think when you reduce the distracting verbiage, the silliness becomes self-evident. In case you're not sure which silliness I mean, the argument of this post is that we should create a special purpose financing vehicle to help create new independent bookstores because the collapse of the Borders chain created a vacuum of need for local bookstores. It's a big need, and while you might think Amazon and others will be filling/have already filled this vacuum, it turns out that the only people who read and buy books are old people who will never adopt the kindle and similar (never mind that they already are in droves, and _that's_ why Southbury, CT lost its last bookstore) and it's a good idea to spend a bunch of money starting small, labor intensive businesses aimed at the middle-class with no expectation that more youthful people will ever patronize them, even as they become middle-aged.

When Carl Paladino ran for Governor of New York, Rachel Maddow presented a fairly detailed argument in support of her theory that he wasn't _really_ running a campaign; he was engaging in performance art. Donald Trump's recent shenanigans have inspired a similar response. When I read something like what McKeown and Linn wrote, I have to wonder if they're serious. They _seem_ serious. But sometimes really, really excellent satire is difficult for the targets to "get" -- Stephen Colbert proved that.

Any guesses?

I want to be _utterly clear_. I like independent bookstores. I used to like them a whole lot more -- lately, it seems like every time I go into one, the tables are plastered with political books of a conservative nature (and I live in a very blue state). But I like them. I would love a world which enjoyed a renaissance of independent bookstores.

I'd also love a lot of other things that I don't think are going to happen.

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