March 1, 2011 § 5 Comments

“He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus…”

Chicago Sun-Times/Daily News Building, 1978 photo by BJM. The building was demolished in 2004 to make room for the Trump International Hotel and Tower.

For many years I have been railing against newspapers for publishing gratis online, while charging print subscribers a pretty penny.  As a newspaper subscriber, I wondered why the pain wasn’t spread more evenly. Something there is that doesn’t love pay walls, but if newspapers are to survive, they have no choice but to install them.

We all read stuff for free on the web. I can’t criticize anyone for taking what’s offered, or for buying books at a discount online. But I can condemn people who try to have it both ways, using the bookstore as a showroom, or giving lip service to the value of independent bookstores, and then buying from Amazon.

What sort of person visits a bookstore for the purpose of scanning with a digital device to find the cheapest price? I recently heard about a woman who carried her kindle into a bookstore for a book club meeting. What could she have been thinking? Did she want to show off her new toy? Does she think that bookstores are non-profit institutions, funded by others, that exist only for her entertainment?

Bookstores, like newspapers, have choices to make. Because I have been traveling the bookstore circuit as a publishers’ rep in the Midwest for thirty years, I think everyone in my territory knows whose side I’m on. It is no fault of brick-and-mortar stores that a certain entrepreneur decided to use books as a gateway to the creation of a new kind of on-line warehouse that sells almost everything.  The scheme required him to give deeper discounts on greater numbers of new books than anyone had ever seen. Amazon’s “loss leader” has led to the loss and diminishment of bookstores. And this applies to chain and independent stores alike. Yes, there are forces at work beyond the actions of one company, but the bottom line is clear. We know why stores are struggling, and not bookstores alone.

But the time has come for bookstores to give as good as they get. Since some people are shockingly insensitive, we need, at the very least, to teach them etiquette. An Italian etiquette book written in 1558 called Il Galateo, advised readers that, after sneezing or blowing their noses, they should not “glare upon thy snot as if it were so many pearls and rubies fallen from thy brains.” No, you don’t use an actual, physical bookstore as an Amazon showroom. No, you don’t bring a kindle to a book club sponsored by a bookstore.

We need a Booksellers’ Bill of Rights to post and distribute in every store. This handbill might explain what a bookstore is, and the many benefits it offers to the community in which it is located, authors, and publishers. It would also explain the precarious economy of the bookselling enterprise. It should declare that anyone scanning books, making lists, or otherwise using the store as a showroom would be asked to leave:  “No one will be allowed to attend an author event, a book club, or any other store event involving a book, unless that book, in printed or digital format, was purchased from this store.”

The Bill of Rights must include a notice to publishers asking that they make public their discount schedules. If preferential discounts are being given to online retailers, this practice should be halted immediately. Also, publishers must actively support the passage of e-fairness legislation in every state. The recent switch by large publishers to agency pricing of e-books shows that the Big Boys will respond to pressure. But for pressure to work it has to be applied, making use of the legal system if necessary.

Stuart Bent at my wedding reception in September, 1990

Stuart Brent, the legendary Chicago bookseller who died last June, came to mind as I was thinking about writing this. Stuart was known for grabbing customers and putting books into their hands. He also said exactly what he thought (I remember when he referred to the Kroch’s and Brentano’s chain store nearby as “the sh** bin”).  Brent’s store closed in 1994, shortly before Amazon started up. But I always imagine the scene if Brent were in business today and caught someone in his Michigan Avenue store comparing prices on a cell phone. Such a person would think twice before doing it again.

The actions I suggest will not bring customers back to the bookstores, but I believe booksellers must stand up for their rights. The chain store model of the-customer-is-always-right, comfy chairs, and willy-nilly return privileges has failed. It may be that membership fees and book club subscriptions become a more important part of Indie operating procedure. But, in any case, booksellers must assert themselves, making it clear that to be a part of the family, all members must show respect for the house it lives in.



  • Venus says:

    I have been working in bookstores for over a decade and I readily admit that I still buy books on-line. Mostly because retail doesn’t pay well and if I can get a hardcover book for $3.99 online or even free on Google books or on my e-reader then I will do so. If a customer came in with their Kindle, or Nook, or Cruise and they bought the book for the book club then I would think nothing of it, for the simple reason that they actually purchased it somewhere. It’s better than the freeloaders who show up and buy a $2 cup of coffee as their rent for the day and proceed to read every magazine in the store and then leave them on the table for us to clean up after them. I would rather the Kindle reader than the fifty pimpled Manga kids taking up all the available floor space. And give me the Amazon window shopper with a list any day over the guy who makes me run around for a half hour looking for his book only to inform me that it was cheaper on-line so he will go home and order it. Lastly, and perhaps more important, my main goal in life is to encourage people to read. I like commerce (and I love my job), but more than anything I love books and if an ebook is how someone chooses to buy the book then so be it, as long as they show up to book club with something interesting to say.

    • As I said in my post, if people are going to shop in the store, or visit it, they need to show respect for the store. I mentioned that the Borders/Barnes and Noble approach has failed. You may prefer a quiet person who uses the store you work in as an Amazon showcase over someone who messes up the place, but none of this behavior ought to be tolerated. Thanks for your comments.

    • Shlomo Zalman says:

      Well, no, Venus, that’s just crap. You make a crap wage. I get that because I’ve done it. But there’s no earthly reason for you to spend the few dollars you have to support your competition, no reason to fall on your retail sword at the sight of bargain books.

      Amazon isn’t just your competition. It’s your mortal enemy and the enemy of everything you claim to love. They’re vertically integrating the entire publishing process, the sale of books and the production, and in doing so, they’re debasing everything that’s good about it and devaluing the objects you sell for a living. They are destroying the publishers you’ve cherished for over a decade, and they are putting out books with no regard for their quality and little regard for the quality of production. At the same time, they’re taking advantage of the weak jobs market by abusing warehouse workers and fighting the collection of sales taxes that support the communities we live in. The money you’re saving when you shop through Amazon doesn’t just choke the business you work for, Venus, it attacks your neighbors and the community you live in.

      Your money is better spent in support of the things you love.

      You never said that you shop at Amazon, Venus, but you probably do. Abebooks is Amazon now. So is Zappos. Websites you wouldn’t expect are supported by Amazon cloud services, and The Internet Movie DataBase went to hell when Amazon bought it and covered it in advertisements and revenue generators.

      And you’re a bookseller, for chrissakes! A publisher would rather comp you a copy of a book and have you order a display quantity for your store and know you’ll recommend it to several dozen people, then find out you’re spending money in the secondary market where your money doesn’t support the author, the translator, the editor, the designer, or any one of the people who brought that book into being.

      When you care about something, you must value it.

      The people who shop online in bricks and mortars are trying to have their cake and eat it. Gently, but surely, they need to be told that that kind of contradiction cannot and will not stand. Bookstores can’t survive that way. None of us can survive that way.

  • I trust that I’m not the only one who does the opposite: finds a book on Amazon and then goes to the bookstore to find it or to order it. Nonetheless, I believe a well-curated bookstore creates an atmosphere in which the purchase is part of the experience. I’m more likely to spend longer in a small good store than a large B&N or Borders. If the bookstore consistently does not stock the books I’m in search of, I can only infer that it isn’t geared to my tastes, in which case Amazon wins. It isn’t always about price.

    • And that, of course, brings up the problem booksellers face: how much money do they put money into inventory and what sort of books should they stock in the age of Amazon’s online inventory listing? Amazon wins, and yet Amazon may not actually have the book you ordered in stock, they may be ordering it for you, albeit swiftly, just as a bookstore would.

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