What’s Wrong with Independent Bookstores

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Courtesy of Tim Dickinson

So we recently lost our local bookstore. MoJo really tried to support Stacey’s on Market St,* our research team went there before Amazon, we bought lots of gift certificates, we are sad to see them go. Well, mostly. I know this is sacrilege, but I actually thought the store was frustrating and found it a struggle to shop there. And Stacey’s isn’t the only guilty party. I have seen other indy bookstores follow these troubling trends that lead customers to, gasp, Amazon. I’m not under any illusions that my piddly gripes are why Stacey’s closed, or why Cody’s did before them (and the list in each city goes on), but they sure didn’t help matters.

Lots of floors/sections, not lots of signs
The trend in most independent bookstores seems to be to steer the reader to the customer service kiosk. Which is great, to talk to a live human with knowledge, but not great if they are on the phone, or nowhere to be found, or just plain huffy that they need to tell the hundreth person where to find Atlas Shrugged. People need to be instantly gratified and they don’t like to get lost, so make it easy, or at least easier.

I know you know more than I do
So it’s shocking and all kinds of wrong that the guy behind the counter at Barnes & Noble has to look up who Toni Morrison is (?!) but lots of bookish folks go the other way at mom-and-pop shops. How can I not know the complete works of Dostoyevsky? Sorry, I am not as smart as you, and sometimes I don’t even know the title or the author of the book I am looking for, and certainly not how to find it according to your store’s Dewey Decimal code. Cut me some slack, or I might go back to Barnes & Noble where I feel smart.

We should have it…
The classic fake out. You ask the (huffy) customer service person if they have a book and he/she looks it up in their computer and says it should be in Philosophy or wherever, and it’s not. Either because someone swiped the last copy, or because someone picked it up and dropped it off somewhere in the stacks, or because the computer isn’t as up to date as the shelf is. Bottom line, I don’t find my book and I don’t pay the store. Lose lose. I know, this is hard to fix. RFID tags maybe?

Nowhere to sit
I do agree that you shouldn’t sit in a bookstore and read the book, or god forbid, a magazine, and not pay for it, but please, give people a place to linger and sample the merchandise. Borders and Barnes & Noble get this. They may go overboard with the latte cafes in the corner, but they also have benches scattered around the stacks. In most indy bookstores you’re lucky if you can commandeer a step stool (and I admit, when you are lucky enough to do so it’s a victory to savor).

Give me used
Why is it that most independent booksellers either sell all new books or all used, with no hybrids? I am sure there is a very good, business-sense reason for this, but as a customer I’d like to see if they have the used variety and also sample the newer offerings.

I know, I am totally that dissatisfied, lazy consumer who wants it all from her local book purveyor. And if I can’t get it I (if I am someone who doesn’t live near a wealth of alt indy bookstores) turn to Powell’s (hopefully), or, hopefully not, Amazon, and lead to the demise of the very industry that I care so much about. But I am not condemning all bookstores, there are total stars in my book (my favorite is Coas in Las Cruces, Moe’s in Berkeley is a close second), just the characteristics that hold some back from winning spoiled converts. So I will march down to Alexander Book Co. or over to City Lights, and I will love the smell only bound paper can muster, and I will temper my expectations, but I won’t miss Stacey’s; sorry, I just won’t.

*The Stacey’s letters are for sale for $500, more details here.


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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

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2) If you’re not ready to donate but you’re interested enough in our work to be reading this, please consider signing up for our free Mother Jones Daily newsletter to get to know us and our reporting better. Maybe once you do, you’ll see it’s something worth supporting.

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