Sunday, November 23, 2014

Opinion — A Tale Of Two Bookstores, Indie Bookstore Celebration On November 29

As I’ve mentioned a number of times in the past, bookstores and libraries are sacred places — all that knowledge and art and ideas, not to mention adventure.   The only other human-made places that provided that kind of inspiration for me were movie theaters.  One of the benefits of living in San Francisco is that most every neighborhood has a bookstore — at least one.

Also, as discussed a lot lately, the bookstore business, as a business, has and is facing major challenges. Years ago, the big box bookstores came through our cities and towns like glaciers during the ice age.  It was tough.  Some bookstores regrouped and survived. Others vanished. Then, if I can extend the climate metaphor, came global warming in the form of Amazon. An over reach on my part perhaps, but the point is technology surged on two fronts.  On-line ordering, unlimited inventory combined with the new instant and portable e-book formats have made life for traditional, independent booksellers and those of us who love them very difficult.

What can bookstores do to deal with changes in the marketplace? I’d love to hear from owners of those stores who have met the challenge. As a writer, and much like independent bookstores, I’m working on my own way to say relevant in this publishing environment.  My only advice to bookstores, unasked for as it is, as both a customer and a writer, is what not to do.  Here is a short, personal story.

When some of my earlier books went out of print, I decided to do something about it.  I found a talented graphic designer and published them myself.  I also published a mystery novella, too short for the traditional publishers to even consider. While regular distribution channels were next to impossible for me monetarily, I wanted the novella, which I set in San Francisco, to be on local bookshelves.  I went around, on foot, to the city’s independent bookstores to peddle my books and was met, generally speaking, with a less than enthusiastic welcome.  I managed to place some on consignment. 

The experience was interesting.  I found that the stores in a small, local chain, Books Inc., to be among the most knowledgeable, most helpful and most welcoming.  When I peddled my little trade paperback Mascara – Death In The Tenderloin to the Books Inc. store on San Francisco’s Chestnut Street, the buyer took five and had me fill out a form. This happened at a few other stores.  What made the Chestnut store different, though, was that a few days later l received an email from the buyer. “We sold out.  Bring over more books.  A check is in the mail.” I did. And it happened again.  Another e-mail, another check and another request for more books. The cycle repeated a few more times before the expected lag in interest occurred. They had put my books in the local writers section of their mystery bookshelves. They also ordered some other books from by my usual publisher through traditional channels. The experience was a good one. When I buy books, I do so at bookstores that reflect the city and the neighborhoods they serve.  I also recommend the best to my friends.  All the Books Inc. stores I’ve been to – four of them – have a staff who seems to like readers and writers and books. The Books Inc. store on California which also actively supports local writers set up a book signing and ordered a bunch of my books even though the publisher had a “no return” policy on hardbacks.

There was another bookstore.  I won’t name it.  It is located in a dynamic neighborhood, an area I regularly frequent.  The place looks good. I came in with my books and talked to the guy who decides what to do with local writers looking for a consignment agreement.  He eyed me with suspicion.  He examined the book as if I was selling a fake Louis Vuitton handbag.  He took two books, I believe.  I didn’t hear from him or anyone for a while so I stopped in to see where I was put.  I couldn’t find my books — not in mysteries, not in plain view anywhere. Perhaps they had sold, I thought.  I didn’t want to be a hovering, pestering writer. I already felt as if I were unwelcomed, and today’s employee was busy checking backpacks and bags.  I left and called later.  They didn’t sell any I was told and because I didn’t come in during the required time, the books were disposed of. I didn’t argue. The terms were probably on the slip of paper I signed, the one with my phone number and e-mail address. I didn’t go back.  Ever.

It wasn’t the money that bothered me.  It was the attitude. I no longer buy books from them, I steer people away. There are a number of warm and friendly bookstores to recommend — some listed below. No need to encourage people to visit a store that treats local writers and customers in such a cold, robotic way. It’s a shame.  At a time when independent bookstores are incredibly challenged and have to be at their best to survive, I would think that personal relationships and local connections would be important.  After all, these are things Amazon is unable to do.

An Update On The Upside:

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco
While San Francisco, like many other places, has lost many fine bookstores in the last few years, all is not lost.  Here, the legendary City Lights in North beach thrives, as does the incomparable Green Apple in The Richmond. Green Apple has also put a branch on the other side of the park in the Sunset. The fantastic (in more ways than one) Borderlands is on eclectic Valencia Street in the Mission. The bookstore, which was well known for science fiction, fantasy and horror, now offers a comprehensive selection of crime fiction as well. Also a café! The Alexander Book Company occupies three floors in the city’s financial district near the SOMA district. The renowned Book Passage from Corte Madera operates a small, but lively branch, popular with commuters and tourists, in the bustling Ferry Building.  The busy West Portal Book Shop is, where else, on West Portal Avenue in West Portal. Browser Books has been on trendy Fillmore since 1976. And the charming Christopher’s Books anchors Potrero Hill’s charming 18th Street.  Barnes & Noble recently closed its last store in the city.  Borders is long gone. Where can readers go for the kind of warmth and inspiration as well as being the company of likeminded souls? It strikes me that for smaller, independent bookstores willing to relate to their communities and their neighborhoods, the future is bright.

On Saturday, November 29 independent bookstores across the country will celebrate with author and illustrator appearances.  Here is a list of participating stores.  For a list by state, click here.

Incidentally, a national list of independent bookstores and a list of mystery bookstores are always just a click way on any page of my blog. Look for the icon on the right.

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