Friday, April 20, 2007

Indies Under Fire

A scene from Indies Under Fire

The Santa Cruz Film Festival opens today and it includes an interesting, and rather timely, film highlighting the plight faced by independent bookstores around the country today.
Focusing on Palo Alto and Santa Cruz, "Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore," a 56-minute documentary by Jacob Bricca, gives a poignant look at the death of the independent bookstore.
Bricca captures the issues involved with a genuine objectivity that allows a viewer to relate to each side's arguments. Among them: Chains such as Borders may pose a threat to emerging authors by supporting the ones who are already known and, even at early stages in a writer's career, giving publishers feedback on what sells and what doesn't.
But on the other side of the coin is the tale of Borders itself, which grew out of a single bookseller's passion into a chain of more than 500 stores. And isn't that the American dream - to put what you love in the hands of as many people as you can?

It's hard to argue with that viewpoint unless you've experienced the joy of hanging out in an independent store, heard authors speak there or discovered a literary gem you never would have found otherwise, experiences lovingly documented by Bricca.

"That's the part I tried to get across in subtle ways," says the filmmaker, 36, a Palo Alto native who now lives in Connecticut and teaches film production at that state's Wesleyan University. "What I feel is precious and tragic when lost is the preciousness of those places as community centers, as places you can ... bump into someone you know. You can offer more services and sell a lot of books (at a chain store), but there is something antiseptic in comparison."
You can watch the trailer from the film here or order a DVD copy for home viewing. Book lovers are right to be concerned about the market pressures that are killing off independent bookstores one-by-one. There is no doubt that communities are poorer for their loss but I also think that, to a large degree, readers have no one to blame but themselves. It is just too difficult for most of us to avoid the pull of the big chains that offer us huge discounts, coffee shops and online sites with huge inventories. Many of us spend significant amounts of our income on books and are constantly searching for ways to make each book dollar stretch a bit farther. I admit to having had a Barnes & Noble membership card for years...and I've recently upgraded that card to one of the new B&N credit cards that gets me another 5% discount when I charge books there...mainly because they have two huge storefronts within a few miles of me. I do make an effort to visit the Houston area independents on weekends if I can, but I've been slipping, getting lazy. I (we) need to do better.


  1. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I am a big fan of Borders and their coupons, but I feel like I should support the local stores. I will be going to at least one local independent bookstore tomorrow for the first time. I'm hoping I love it so much that I won't want to go back to Borders.

    I'm also excited because on the website for one of the local stores I read that they offer paperbacks for 20% off on Tuesdays which could be the solution to the Borders coupon problem.

  2. We're all caught in that same "discount coupon" trap, Matt. I plan to spread my purchases around a bit more by trying to attend more books signings where buying the book to be signed is part of the deal. My problem is that all the indies are at least 25 miles from me, into some of the worst Houston traffic imaginable. But attending the signings will also give me time to check out the rest of the stock in the store...lots of which I'm sure I'll never see at the chains.

  3. I straddle both worlds, too--I have a lovely independent bookstore within walking distance, and I patronize them whenever I can, but I'm tempted often by the coupons, coffee, etc. at the chains...

    By the way, I think that the photo you posted from the movie is of an amazing bookstore in Santa Barbara that closed a couple years was very sad.

  4. I don't think we should feel overly guilty, gentle reader, because our hearts are in the right place. There's only so much money available to us for book buying and common sense tells us to maximize what we can do with that cash...but as book lovers we feel horrible when we see a bookstore close up for good. I'm really going to try to spread my purchases around a lot more than I have lately, but it really takes an conscious effort on my part to sustain something like that. Wish me luck. :-)