Saturday, February 17, 2007

Down for the Count?

I still try to tell myself that there is a future for small, independent "mom & pop" style bookstores even though all the evidence and my own logic tells me otherwise. Here in Houston we are down to a precious few of those stores and I suspect that there will never again be as many of them here as there are today. Shrinkage of this type is hard for a book lover to watch.

The San Francisco area has long had the reputation of supporting some of the best independent bookstores in the country, but it appears that those stores are suffering the same fate that their cousins are facing everywhere else. We all recognize the culprits:, Barnes & Noble, Borders, eBay and the countless other websites on which books are bought and sold. Sure, I know who the "bad guys" are supposed to be. But I spend a lot of money with most of those "bad guys," in particular with Barnes & Noble because of their brilliant scheme of sponsoring their own credit card that takes the place of their old membership card, offers an additional 5% discount when used at one of their stores and which gives bonus points in the form of $25 gift cards to the store for expenditures charged elsewhere to their card. How can any book lover resist a combination like that?

But, all that said, it still breaks my heart to realize that so many little bookstores continue to disappear on a monthly basis. The Contra Costa Times reminded me of the sad news again today, in fact.
Five years ago, Gary Frank decided to sell his bookstore.

The Booksmith had built a fine reputation during a quarter of a century, thanks to an impressive series of author appearances and a high-traffic location in the old hippie neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury.

Yet hardly anyone expressed interest. Frank was disappointed but not surprised.

"Maybe they saw the future," he said.

A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, open since 1982 near City Hall, sought a buyer, couldn't find one and closed last summer. Cody's Books shut its flagship Berkeley store after a half-century run. Black Oak Books closed one of its stores and is considering shutting the other two if a buyer can't be found. Numerous small new and secondhand stores have fallen with little fanfare.
A good bookstore, he notes, is unlike any other retail space. Where else can you linger, sample the merchandise and then casually reject it if not quite right? Your local pizzeria would frown on such behavior. In a culture that worships money, bookstores are one of the few commercial institutions where cost doesn't trump all other considerations. Massive bestsellers share shelf space with the most obscure tomes.

But some refuse to give up. Such is the case with Praveen Madan who has recently purchased Booksmith and intends to give it a complete makeover so that it will survive to serve its community for years to come.
Madan, 41, calls bookstore owners "reluctant capitalists," saying they're suffering because they haven't innovated. His plan: "Create the store for the 21st century. If you do it well, you'll give customers a reason to come back. But you can't do it by making them feel guilty."

He's full of plans for improving the Booksmith's Web site, tying the store more firmly to the Haight-Ashbury community, doing more events -- making it both inescapable and irresistible for those who live in the neighborhood.

Frank, who owns the Booksmith building, is helping the new team by offering a below-market rent. He couldn't think offhand of a store anywhere in the country that has successfully reinvented itself and moved to a secure financial footing, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.

"Someone needs to take bookstores to another level," Frank said. "Because this level sure isn't working."


  1. Sam,
    Thanks for your provocative blog entry. We are confident that independent bookstores can stand on their own and compete successfully against all the alternatives. And that's why we are starting this experiment to create the "Independent Bookstore of the 21st Century". Frankly speaking indie bookstores haven't innovated much in the last 30 years. And it's the lack of innovation that is to be blamed for their demise. The only way to survive and thrive in a free market is by innovation. We invite you to join us on our site where we are gathering indie bookstore lovers to hear their ideas and suggestions. We don't have all the answers figured out yet, but with your help we will.

  2. I'd love to someday be finacially secure enough to run a small, independent bookstore and not even worry about turning a profit... wouldn't that be cool?

    Anywho, good luck to Praveen Madan; I hope he is the first of many, many successfull reinventions for the "little man." (Gee, as one of the "bad guys," that almost seems hypocritical, but I mean it with all my heart.)

  3. Praveen, thanks for the invitation to your website. I'll be sure to drop by because I'm excited by your enthusiasm and confidence that independent bookstores have a good future. Like so many others, it's been a dream of mine to open up a little bookstore when I retire so I am hoping that you guys come up with a solution that will work for those like me.

    I wish you the best and want you to know that I'll be pulling for your complete success.

  4. Anne, we share a similar dream but I don't think that I'll ever reach a financial state where I can run a bookstore strictly for the love of it, regardless of taking a loss on the thing. I wish that were possible, but since I don't play the lottery, there's no chance of that happening.

    As for being one of the "bad guys," all I can say is that I can't resist their pull. I love walking in to a Barnes & Noble when they've just received a new shipment of "bargain books" to put on the shelves. It's like a treasure hunt sometimes and I've found some great bargains that way...some of my favorite books, in fact.

  5. Oh, I'm with you there! The bargain section is great, especially since I get a discount on top of the bargain price! And, I just got promoted to Bargain Lead so I'll be having plenty of time to peruse the titles. :D