Sunday, June 14, 2009

We all know why we prefer independent bookstores, right?

I shouldn't bite the hand that feeds me, but let me tell you -- as if you didn't already know -- why you should always, always, always support the indies*.

I work in one of the big chains -- hence, "Bookstore C" -- and I have pleasant stories to tell about customers and the other staff. But here's the A #1 Big Colossal Giant Supersized Humongous Capital P >>> Problem: almost every single decision about the store is made by Bookstore C Corporate.

This plays out in many ways and, given the desire to keep staffing at a minimum (and believe me, the difference does not show in my pay) it works well. For instance, every display you see in Bookstore C is designed by Corporate. If you walk into one of our stores and there's a display of, oh, bookmarks, that display will have been designed by Corporate, and is in every single Bookstore C in the U.S. and Canada that week. The sign and the spinner come from Corporate, and every single bookmark on the display was chosen by Corporate, AND Corporate will send along photos of where every single item on the display will be placed. Nothing is left to chance! Nothing.

So here we are in the Hudson Valley, and the start of the Henry Hudson Quadricentennial celebration was last week. We have a display of related titles, chosen for us, with a sign sent along for the display, but -- here's the catch -- it's missing that great little book about the Palisades that the Beczak Environmental Education Center published. Of course. Small publishers don't count, even though the catchment area for this branch of the store includes more than half of the people who look at the Palisades every day of their lives. Important note: There is no big-publisher book about the Palisades.

So where Bookstore S**, right here in Hastings-on-Hudson and now alas gone forever, carried books by every writer around***, it doesn't seem relevant to Bookstore C Corporate management that my branch has all these writers living within a few miles. Bill Holstein published a book just a few months ago, Why GM Matters. Bookstore C did not feature this local writer's book, nor did it ask him to do a program or sign books or anything else. If I sell a book by James Howe or Alyssa Capucilli or Roni Schotter or Steve Kanfer (just as a f'rinstance) I comment to the customer that the author lives in Hastings or Yonkers or wherever. Why doesn't Bookstore C promote this?

Last week I noticed a customer carrying a list and scanning the shelves anxiously. Could I help? "I'm looking for books by Helen, Helen, um, Helen Bar--, Bar-- oh golly," she said, "let me check her last name. I keep getting it wrong."
"Helen Barolini?" I hazarded.
"That's it!" she exclaimed happily. "Do you know her work?"
"Not only do I know and love her work, but I'm having dinner with her tonight****," I said.

The customer was just about overcome. She took my hand. "Tell her I love her," she said. And -- since Helen's wonderful books are not big-publisher books -- we went to the computer and she ordered Chiaroscuro, A Circular Journey, and Their Other Side. The book of Helen's that had created such devotion? Umbertina, which of course Bookstore C doesn't carry either.

Here's the other side of the picture. My first day at Bookstore C, I noticed a stack of Ann Coulter books on the front table. In the section, the newest and second-newest Coulter books were in double stacks face-out as well. In the several months since I started working there, there have been stacks and double face-outs of Bill O'Reilly's latest book. Currently the front table has two huge stacks of something with Ronald Reagan's name on the front cover, and also of two Glenn Beck titles. One day I was cleaning shelves near the Coulter books and my hand-held personal computer terminal beeped when I scanned them. Unsold, they'd sat on the shelves so long that the central computer told me to return all but one. That very day, another dozen of the same title arrived.

Well, hey -- has Bookstore C Corporate noticed that New York is a blue state? That Westchester County is a blue county? That my branch of Bookstore C is located in a town that has virtually no November election because if you win the Democratic primary, you get the job? It's not relevant for Bookstore C Corporate. Those unsold books by Reagan and O'Reilly and Beck and Coulter sit there gathering dust; personally, I have not sold one of them. These books adorn best-seller lists, which don't take into account what will be mammoth returns from Bookstore C. If our local managers selected books, these stacks would not be here.

I did not look for this when I started working at Bookstore C. It just became apparent to me after a while.

Umbertina cover from the Feminist press CUNY edition.

* Friend-from-ninth-grade Jane, who was at Copperfield's in Santa Rosa for twenty years, insists that she can never work at a chain for these reasons.
** Bookstore S = sui generis, Good Yarns Bookshop
*** Is there a lesson here? In order to survive, must bookstores ignore small publishers and local connections? The answer seems to be yes.
**** The Literature Club's 100th Anniversary dinner

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