February 23, 2007
There's no such thing as "the independent bookstore" which is why people are constantly saying that "the independent bookstore is dying". That is: generalizing isn't really appropriate. People who decide to open independent bookstores come from such a range of backgrounds, and proceed in such a wide variety of manners that their resulting companies simply cannot be lumped together into a useful single category.
And yet we do lump them together. Our task is to notice the fallacy. As a contrasting example, when we talk about the restaurant industry, we will generally not speak about Independent Restaurants versus Chain Restaurants, because we know that there is no logical reason to say that the existence of McDonalds has an impact on business at Le Cirque. A fancy, exclusive restaurant in Manhattan is not affected by the existence of massive restaurant corporations. And, many restaurants all over the country – restaurants with amazing cuisines, unusual decor, creative niches – that is, independent restaurants – are unaffected by growth in generic chain restaurant activity.
So, therefore, any given independent bookstore will have a loud voice if it, alone, develops a loud voice. If it's unique and the public loves that uniqueness.
Let's see if we can think of specific independent bookstores with "loud voices". City Lights Bookstore, in San Francisco – founded in the early 50s by Lawrence Ferlinghetti -- published Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl". Last year was the 50th anniversary of that poem's publication. There was major coverage of City Lights Bookstore in a wide variety of media. Ferlinghetti was honored, "Howl" was celebrated, the landmark obscenity trial was remembered. In short – an independent bookstore had a loud voice. Now: this big media year for a single bookstore didn't mean that "independent bookstores" as a GROUP did or didn't have a loud voice last year. But it means that ANY one independent bookstore can have a loud voice, in the past, in the present, in the future.
Another example. My book Rebel Bookseller was published by a bookstore that I helped launch, in Brooklyn: Vox Pop. We've sold 2,200 copies of my book. I've gotten lots of feedback from people who've read my book: people who say I have helped give them courage to open an indie bookstore. Again: Vox Pop is a bookstore that publishes, and it is this activity as a publisher that helps to give the bookstore an unusually loud voice. Most bookstores do not publish, but any bookstore can. That is: the loud voice of any given bookstore depends on the actions of that bookstore.
Now, certainly the chain bookstores' enormous sales are very impressive, but in an important sense they do NOT have a loud voice, because they must strive to avert controversy in order not to alienate customers. No chainstore corporation would have published either "Howl" or "Rebel Bookseller". Neither would a major publishing house. In fact, although the chains and the major publishers do handle lots of Yesterday's Controversial Books – if you look carefully at the publishing history of most important books, you'll find that many emerged from small presses, and were originally trumpeted by small bookstores. How about "Ulysses" by James Joyce, published by a bookstore, in Paris, in 1922 – Shakespeare & Company – that was owned by the American, Sylvia Beach? It was only after being in print for 10 years with Beach that the book was published in the U.S., by Random House – following victory in an obscenity trial.
So – independent booksellers and independent publishers are the culture's key "loud voices" because they are each, alone, able and willing to act to say things which large corporations daren't say. Large bookstores and large corporations then will try to make money using the ideas and work done by these brave independents. Thus, "Ulysses'" copyright went from Sylvia Beach, to Random House, to Random House's current owner, Bertelsmann. And we should NOT give any credit to Bertelsmann, or to the big chain stores that currently stock "Ulysses" for publishing or selling that book. These huge corporations don't deserve any credit. They didn't write that book, they didn't take the risk to publish it.
The loudest voices emerge from the smallest mouths.
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Andrew Laties, author of "Rebel Bookseller: How To Improvise Your Own Indie Store and Beat Back The Chains", has started and stopped numerous independent bookstores in and around Chicago and, more recently, Amherst. Laties currently runs The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art store and is part owner of Brooklyn-based publisher and bookseller VoxPop.