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January 7, 2003

Sic transit, or maybe not: Greenwich Village’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, one of the founding institutions of the modern gay-rights movement, is closing. Says the Times article:
Owners of other gay bookshops say they are floored by the fact that Manhattan cannot seem to support a gay bookstore.
It’s no surprise to me. Manhattan no longer has a science-fiction bookstore, either.

On the other hand, you can buy a startling variety of science-fiction titles at huge chain bookstores all over Manhattan, and I suspect the same is true of gay-interest books. Moreover, unlike in the days when little Village shops like Oscar Wilde and The Science Fiction Shop flourished, you can find this kind of wide selection out in the suburbs as well.

Some said that the failure of the gay bookstores in Manhattan was actually a sign of the gay movement’s success in making gay issues mainstream, which would be in keeping with what Oscar Wilde wrote in Lady Windemere’s Fan: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
I would say that sometimes it’s important to ask ourselves what’s more culturally important: the preservation of particular bookstores, or the widespread availability of books.

Obviously, I don’t want bookselling to be controlled by one or two behemoths, but as I’ve written before, people who focus on the loss of charming old independent shops in Cambridge or Berkeley or Greenwich Village have a tendency to forget how completely devoid of bookstores most of America was fifty years ago. The fact that all over the country, in the second-tier cities and suburban sprawls where most people live, you can find a decent selection of books in all sorts of highly specialized categories—well, that’s a change. Indeed, sometimes it’s hard to convey to people who grew up in Cambridge or Berkeley or New York what a transforming change it really is. [07:01 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Sic transit, or maybe not::

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 07:09 AM:

Before we get started, do note:

I really do think a good independent bookstore is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

I really am familiar with the issues that independents have with the big chains.

I am asking, on what do we want to spend our crusading passion? One model of retail over another? Or, you know, books?

Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 07:54 AM:

This becomes a very specific and personal issue in certain places. When my daughter moved to Myrtle Beach, SC (known by the Times as the Ticky-tacky Redneck Riviera) she found two books stores--a Christian Bookstore and a B&N. She saved her amens for the latter.

Now she's moved to Western Mass where the battle to save the four independents in Northampton, Mass (was six but two disappeared several years ago) is an agonizing slow slide toward the two fairly local B&Ns and the one Media Play in the malls.

I have yet to sign at either of the B&Ns or Media Play, but they carry a greater selection of my stuff than do three of the four independents. AND they keep asking me to sign, whereas I have not been asked by three of the four indies in years.

So several more personal dots on your graph.


CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 08:20 AM:

I live in a small city in the San Joaquin Valley. Independent bookstores have been opening and failing in this area with little help or competition from chains for years. One learned to find a reliable store in a nearby large city (say San Francisco) for a semi-annual boook orgy, and fill in the rest of one's needs with careful mail order purchases.

The opening of the first B&N nearby in Fresno was liberating -- my wife and I would drive up at least once a month to spend a chunk of a day there. The problem was that there often was no parking -- the lot, and the store, were full. I love Amazon but there is no substitute for being able to dig into a book before buying it and the chains have transformed the physical availability of books out here away from the biggest couple of dozen cities.

I wonder if the effect of the chains on independents is not the most important question -- what about the effect of the chains on local libraries?

Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 08:33 AM:

I'm a big fan of the big bookshops. They are, quite simply, much more likely to have the book you want than the bookshops of my youth were. Often, they're more likely to have the book you want even than the best specialist shops in their heyday. And they're not at all bad at having books you never even realised you wanted, too.

And I'm a non-library user. Every so often I feel a vague twinge of guilt -- shouldn't my children get the empowering experience of choosing library books? But then I remember that at our local library there aren't many books, and the selection is made up primarily of rotten books about how little Timmy is coping with being bullied at school ever since Dad moved out. Then once we get them home we find it unremittingly difficult to keep track of library books (protective camoflage), so getting the books back to the library on time, or indeed ever, is a trial.

Instead, I take them to the bookshop, and let them choose books. And instead of choosing from a range of librarian pleasing books with a social conscience, they get to choose from the best books available for kids. And they can keep them forever. But, you know, they don't get four books a week this way. So if they ever catch the voracious reading habit, libraries will be essential.

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 09:22 AM:

There's one sf specialty bookstore left in the Baltimore to New York region--Between Books, in a strip mall a little north of Wilmington, DE and not far off I-95. I don't think it's any coincidence that Between books isn't paying a big-city rent.

It does have a better selection of sf than the big chains, and it's more conveniantly organized. I don't know what it would take to convince a chain to put all the new books (including the mass-market paperbacks) face out in one section.

Philadelphia does still have a gay bookstore, Giovanni's Room, and it's in center city. I'm a little surprised myself that NYC doesn't have a gay bookstore--I grant that the chains carry a lot, but they can't cover specific subjects as well as specialized bookstores do.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 09:24 AM:

I think you're right about the wide availability of gay books. Oscar Wilde thrived (throve?) when it was the only place to get such books; A Different Light already bit the dust for the same reason.

But I haven't been to a mainstream bookstore that had all, or even a distributed sample, of the books in Oscar Wilde. They tend to have political books, psychological books, and maybe a little light erotica. Where are the gay-themed (but not pornographic) romance, science fiction, historical novels/films?

On the Web. That's about it, other than places like Oscar Wilde. As a Homosexual-American (!) who prefers to walk into a bookstore and browse (no one has shown me a website where browsing is possible), I have to consider this a tragic loss.

Is it worth it in exchange for country-wide popular availability of books? I guess it is - IF people are reading more books as a result. Are they? I don't know. I heard a couple of years ago that the average American household contains three (yes, 3, not 30 or 300) books, and watches television 6 hours a day (IIRC). Has that changed?

Averages being what they are, if it's gotten up to five, say, it's probably worth it - but I distrust such statistics; I want to see the standard deviation and the median as well. I suspect that even if the average goes up it has more to do with out-of-control bookaholics like me (and you) spending the rent money on How To Grow Betony In Your Bathtub than with Granny Hatfield buying Voina i Mir.

I'd love to be wrong about this.

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 09:54 AM:

I worked in three of NYC's independent bookstores during the course of a decade (1979-1989). All are now gone, but only one should seriously be missed.

Scribner's (5th & 48th) was the most beautiful of the old 5th Avenue carriage trade stores. It carried perhaps a fifth of the number of books the Barnes & Noble across the street presently carries (that was, if I remember right, the first branch store opened by B & N -- there was of course already the main store downtown). Customer-friendly? We were told, explicitly, to take as few special orders as possible. No one was allowed to sit. Until a few years or so before I began, the store neither carried paperbacks nor accepted credit cards. The staff were treated like flunkies by the owners, and treated (most of) the public accordingly. The snob factor was remarkably pervasive.

Endicott Books was on Columbus above 82nd and was basically run as a vanity project for the owner. The store was lovely, and held perhaps one-twentieth the number of books carried by the B & N that opened a couple of years later, two blocks away. If a customer sat on the floor to look at a book, or spent more than a few minutes flipping through, we were directed by the owner to make them get up, or put the book away. Again, we took as few special orders as possible. I left the store just before my first book came out; when I dropped by to see if it was there I was told "it's science fiction, of course we don't carry it."

The third store at which I worked was the late lamented Coliseum Books, which as all NYCers remember did have a truly fabulous stock, but also a staff that by and large out-surlied the Strand any day of the week. This was the only store in which I worked in which physical violence could if necessary be employed against the customers. I left the store after the owner in a fit of pique threw a toolbox at me; and that was the end of my life in retail bookselling.

Nowdays, if I go into a B & N or Borders looking for a book, nine times out of ten I find it -- if not at one, then at the next. If I'm looking for a new book I go down to Shakespeare on lower Broadway (my favorite independent in town), which gets new titles before anyone else. And if I'm looking for anything more obscure (as I often am)I just get on the internet.

In Lexington, Kentucky, where I grew up and where there was one small bookstore downtown, there is now Joseph-Beth, a regional chain in the mid-south and Ohio that puts B & N to shame. As Patrick notes I think this is the case in most cities nationwide (and now even the Bronx has a B & N).

By and large I think the general-stock independent stores that are still in business are the ones that either always knew how to do the job in the first place, or the ones that cleaned up their act.

Trent ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:03 AM:

I don't get really passionate about the independents vs. big chains argument; I echo Patrick's comments in that what interests me is the books. Anecdotally, I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, which has what is reputedly one of the great independents (The Tattered Cover). Now, I love The Tattered Cover. But when I was a pre-teen and teen, besides riding my bike to the library on Saturday afternoons (which I did a lot), I didn't have access to downtown Denver and that great independent store. What I had access to was the local Waldenbooks at Westminster Mall, with its skimpy few shelf feet of SF&F selection. To this day, I remember the time, having recently become hooked on ERB's Tarzan books, that my ten year old self sat crouched at the foot of the shelf for an hour or so just reading the next in the series, when a clerk came and told me to either buy the book or take a hike. Do I love B&N and Borders, with their big chewy selection and their completely relaxed browsing rules? Damn straight I do, and they've reaped the rewards from my wallet in the last decade, too....

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:55 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz states that "the chains carry a lot, but they can't cover specific subjects as well as specialized bookstores do."

I would sign off on a modified version of this statement: they don't tend to cover specific subjects as well as a well-run specialized bookstore can. But being a "specialty store" doesn't confer automatic virtue, nor does being a "chain store" make it impossible for the store's management to take a strong interest in one or more specialties. And there are plenty of stores available to prove both points.

Jack Womack's post reminds me of the vile bookstore in his extravagantly dystopian novel Random Acts off Senseless Violence, which I always suspected was based on Coliseum Books.

Daryl McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:05 AM:

I wish I had something meaningful to say about the demise of independent booksellers---it seems very sad to me, like the departure of the elves at the end of _The Lord of the Rings_ trilogy. But my real point is this: Jane, I always thought that Gulf Shores, Alabama was the "Redneck Riviera".

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:18 AM:


You suspected correctly!!

Coliseum required little, in fact no exaggeration to fit into my sort of text. Once one of our floor staff was stabbed through the hand by a cashier after he tried to take them away from her -- she was trying to stab a fellow cashier with whom she was having an argument, at the time. This took place at 5 PM when the store was packed, of course, and customers were lined up waiting to buy books from the aforementioned cashiers. In case you were wondering, no one was fired. "TAKE IT DOWNSTAIRS NEXT TIME!" the owner shouted. Ah, the golden age of the NY literary world...

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:19 AM:

Stabbed through the hand with scissors, I should have noted.

Myke ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:26 AM:

DC has Lambda Rising, an enormously successful independent gay bookstore in Dupont Circle. It has been in business at least since I moved down here 8 years ago.

There's a Borders (or maybe a Books-A-Million) *and* a Crown Books just down the street. Bothm being the the "gay-ghetto" of the circle, offer huge selections of gay-specific publications, and yet they haven't managed to put Lambda Rising out of business. LR's customer base is surprisingly loyal, even in the face of the lower prices offered by the chains.

BSD ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:30 AM:

Great things about the chains:

Computerized inventory, including list-by-section and certainty about current stock. I knew Powers' _Declare_ was excellent, I just didn't know that it was shelved in "Mystery" rather than SF. The computer told me the secret.

The Borders near me (57th & Park), until the recent republishing of the old Discworlds in the US, carried the not-available-in-the-us Discworlds in import Corgis, shelved with the US-available books. With a convenient $-denominated sticker. They still carry the hardcore stuff like that: The Mapp, the guide, the encyclopedia.

Graphic Novels. Borders and Virgin both give them nice big chunks of space, and happily carry the smaller publishers. Virgin often has import Artbooks shelved with the translated Manga.

Huge, sprawling SF-F sections (one Borders I've seen even segregates SF from F, because they have so damn many).

Huge, sprawling sections of books they didn't carry ten years ago. The B&N near me has shelf after shelf of Feminist Theory, Queer Theory, etc.

In-store-cafes. Some mock them. What could be more convenient?

End result? Every time I go into one, I come out with something. The more I browse and simply read whole books in the store, the more I come out with. They definitely profit from me, and I'm happy with them.

Michael Rawdon ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 12:51 PM:

I am asking, on what do we want to spend our crusading passion? One model of retail over another? Or, you know, books?

My flippant answer was going to be, "How about: both?" But in reality I don't want to see one model of retail over another, I want to see many different models of retail. The sort of thing which doesn't really exist anymore in the comic book industry (in which the vast majority of comics are exclusively distributed by a single distributor, and to a dwindling number of venues).

I think that the mechanism for delivering product to consumers is hardly less important than what product gets delivered.

It's interesting reading comments in support of chain stores. In response to BSD's comment, my experience is that chain stores - especially Barnes & Noble - have "huge, sprawling SF-F sections" hugely dominated by a few very popular authors and by media tie-ins. Rarely do I find books that interest me. This has been my experience across several stores in different cities, with one exception which (I understand) had a fan who did a lot of the ordering for the SF section.

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 12:56 PM:


charming old independent shops in Cambridge

I can't remember it's name, but do you mean the one that used to be over the old Wursthaus on Mass Ave (now, alas, also a victim of mall creep in Harvard Square) where Spike used to sit behind the desk forever and knew every book in SF creation and where you could find it? (sigh)

Fortunately, Harvard BK is still there, and every September you can find great stuff in the Used lower level before the students arrive and get their hands on it.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 01:07 PM:

"I think that the mechanism for delivering product to consumers is hardly less important than what product gets delivered."

That's an interesting and provocative statement, and I'd like to hear you dilate on it.

My experience as a publisher is that B&N and the other big chains have been reasonably supportive of some of our publishing projects that involved neither megapopular authors nor media tie-ins. For instance, B&N's support was crucial to the launch of Orb, our trade paperback backlist line. It's true that you won't find many gems of the SF small press on the SF shelves of a B&N superstore, but you won't find those in most independents, either.

That's a good point about the disaster that is modern comic-book retailing. Of course, the history of independent comic stores in the 1990s is a lot more like, say, the tulip craze, than like anything happening in the book world. Still, I certainly agree that diversity is better than monoculture. What I most want is diversity in books, and I'm all for whatever model supports that.

By the way, Xopher, upthread, wonders if more people are reading more books. The short answer is yes, definitely. It's hard to nail down figures, and the discourse is absolutely lousy with balonious data purporting to show that the average American reads one book a decade (probably while moving his lips), but in fact Americans read a buttload of books--and more and more of them all the time.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 01:25 PM:

Thought you might have some more current info on that. But mainly posting here to tell you how much I love the word 'balonious'...did you strike that coinage yourself? If not, where was it minted? Or is it of ancient provenance, and I have somehow, to my loss, missed it up to now?

I giggle. I mutter it to myself. I grin ear-to-ear. Not since I got the word 'pathomnemonic' have I enjoyed acquiring a new word so much.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 01:30 PM:

It crawled out of my keyboard, honest.

Jim Meadows ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 01:55 PM:

I live in Champaign-Urbana Illinois, an area with about 100-thousand people and a very big university, which seems to make for book heaven. There's a good mix of public and college libraries, new and used bookstores, independents and corporate chains. The indies seem to thrive by filling niches (second-hand, comics) that the chains aren't much interested in, or just by being well-run (one of the big-box bookstores here is an independent).

But a big college town may be a special case. Until three years ago, I lived in Peoria, a slightly larger market with just a small university. The result as of 2000 when I moved was fewer bookstore choices ---- a couple of chain stores in the mall, one big-box store, one college bookstore, a second-hand store or two, and one tiny indie store aimed at African-Americans. More bookstores closed than opened during the 21 years I lived there. Champaign-Urbana has triple the bookstores and more stability. It does NOT seem to have an exhaustive independent specialty store(there is a funky new-age bookstore run out of a bungalow). That's the sort of thing I would expect in a major city, which makes it disturbing to hear about gay and science fiction bookstores in big cities closing.

Derek Lowe ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 02:59 PM:

There's been a back-backlash in the chain-versus-independent bookstore debate (see the July-Aug 2001 Atlantic Monthly, for example.)

I'm an admirer of the chains, for just the reason Patrick suggests - a non-urban background. Growing up in in northeast Arkansas, the nearest bookstore of any kind was about thirty miles away. My family moved to west Tennessee around 1980, and just having a mall-sized Waldenbooks was a big step up.

Now the same town has a branch of Davis-Kidd. You would have had quite a time buying anything by Borges in 1980, but it's there now. You can buy David Foster Wallace, Richard Feynman, Nabokov, Wittgenstein, and Martin Amis. (As for the SF, the last time I was there, they had a large selection, including several NESFA titles.)

And you can browse through these while sitting around a fireplace and having a decent lunch. If you'd told me about it in 1980, I'd have fainted.

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 03:11 PM:

To keep an exhaustive independent specialty bookstore *housed in a physical plant* going in any city or town requires a number of things:

1) A market big enough to provide a solid local customer base;
2) A store location accessible enough, and busy enough, to sustain a predictable level (daily, monthly, annually) of purchasing customers coming through;
3) A store attractive enough, or functional enough, to continually attract potential new customers;
4) A reason for the general reader to come in -- having enough non-specialty material of whatever sort on hand to provide new customers with something to buy even if they aren't interested in the specialized subject (i.e. cards, coffee, CDs, etc. etc.);
5) A buyer who knows what he or she is doing;
6) Store managers who know what they are managing;
7) Store personnel who know what they are selling, but who do not fall prey to the "I could never sell/tell anything to someone as uncool as you" syndrome;
8) Reasonable rent, utilities, etc. etc.;
9) Sense, on the part of the owner (sanity is not a requirement)
10) Luck. A good friend of mine opened a now-closed Spanish-language bookshop here in Manhattan a few years ago. It was a beautiful space, not centrally located but still readily reachable. The rent was just doable. The one area he had to skimp on was insurance. Then the basement flooded.

These off the top of my head. There have been any number of specialty shops in NYC to open and close during the 25 years I've lived here, and it's often hard to say why, specifically, they do or don't make it. There is a very good architecture bookstore, Urban Center Books, around the corner from where I work. It's located in prime, i.e. expensive rental space in the center of Midtown Manhattan, it is set considerably away from the closest street, and it sells no non-architectural material, yet it has been doing very well for 21 years. But then there are an awful lot of architects in NYC, and they usually have money and, unlike the average SF reader, can always write off however many books they buy.

Mystery bookstores tend to do the best of all genre stores, I think.

Alex ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 03:36 PM:

Xopher writes:
"Where are the gay-themed (but not pornographic) romance, science fiction, historical novels/films?" [in the chain stores]

In many of the big box stores, they're just mixed in with the general fiction/romance/scifi/historical section. It does vary from store to store though - the management and staff of the big box stores do have some control over both their inventory and layout. In my experience, B&N stores with gay managers are more likely to have their gay fiction split out into a separate section, not to mention a much broader selection of gay fiction, period.

It's actually an interesting issue in itself as to whether it's desirable to have a separate gay fiction section within a big box store. Does this mean that it's assumed that a straight person browsing the general fiction section would never choose to buy a book with a gay protagonist and that gay fiction will only sell if gay people can find it easily? I've certainly read some of Toni Morrison's novels and I'm a gay white male. Why wouldn't a straight black female want to read a book by Andrew Holleran? Would she ever do so if she didn't find it while browsing through the general fiction section? From an economic standpoint, I wonder whether Holleran's novels (or other gay writers') sell better in stores where gay fiction has been "ghettoized" out into its own section or in stores where it's been mixed in with the rest of the fiction.

I'm fortunate enough to live in a city (Toronto) well-supplied with both big chains and small independents. In fact, there's a storefront not far from where I live with a science fiction bookstore on the first floor and a gay bookstore on the second and third floors. Both of them seem to be thriving even though they're just a few blocks away from an Indigo (a Canadian big chain bookstore).

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 03:38 PM:

Just to mention another lost and wonderful bookstore: Weiser's, an occult and metaphysical supermarket-sized bookstore in New York. Ok, maybe it was a small supermarket, but it went on and on, and in a time when most bookstores wouldn't have anything about Tibetan Buddhism, Weiser's would have a whole section of it.

And I filled out an index card about wanting a copy of Clynes' _Sentics_, and years later, they notified me when the book came back into print.

Bryant ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 03:46 PM:

John Farrell asks, "I can't remember it's name, but do you mean the one that used to be over the old Wursthaus on Mass Ave (now, alas, also a victim of mall creep in Harvard Square) where Spike used to sit behind the desk forever and knew every book in SF creation and where you could find it? (sigh)"

That'd be the Science Fantasy Bookstore. Spike is these days, at least some of the time, perched behind the desk of Pandemonium, which was originally in the same location and is now in the Garage at the far end of the same block. Tyler somethingorother owns Pandemonium, and sells games as well as SF/F -- seems to be doing pretty well.

I find that chain stores vary. The Barnes and Noble in Colma, south of San Francisco, is pretty bad as bookstores go. The B&N on Bay Street, in San Francisco proper, is pretty decent (although I'd probably go to Stacy's first). I think it depends on the manager of any individual store; for example, the Borders in the Stonestown Galleria (also San Francisco) used to stock import British SF, which I haven't seen at any other Borders. The Borders in the Cambridge Galleria, out here in Boston, has some import mysteries. Etc.

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 03:53 PM:

Categorization: to some degree I think it's left up to the local store, in chains, but that's a guess. I know that when it comes to Borders and B & N I've found my books in SF/Fantasy, in Literature, and, sometimes, with some titles in one, and some in the other.

The smartest places, I think, keep separate genre sections but also make sure copies of books are filed in more than one location. This of course is easier said than done when it comes to keeping track of inventory on a main database.

The lost bookstores of NYC, ah bliss: Weiser's, yes, and Eighth Street, Laurel, Classic, Biblio, Brentano's, Marboro (the far superior discount chain, swallowed up by B & N), Bookmasters, Doubleday, Womrath's, Traveller's, Victor Kamkin...not even to mention the used book stores that have bitten the dust: Biblo & Tannen, Dauber & Pine, Academy, Arcadia, Abbey, the late great Mendoza...

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 03:55 PM:

It's interesting to see what stain trumps what, so to speak. As Alex points out above, many large bookstores have "gay fiction" sections. But lots of modern SF and fantasy has gay major characters or even protagonists--ranging from literary SF like Maureen McHugh's work to the pop fantasy of Mercedes Lackey--and yet that stuff is almost always kept in the SF section, rarely making its way over to Gay Interest. Even when the books in question have won the Lambda Literary Award, like McHugh's China Mountain Zhang or Frank M. Robinson's The Dark Beyond the Stars. From this we can conclude that being science-fictional is less culturally respectable than being gay. Or, alternately, that SF fans are less worried than mainstream readers about the terrifying prospect of reading a novel about somebody with the wrong orientation.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 03:59 PM:

John Farrel wrote: I can't remember it's name, but do you mean the one that used to be over the old Wursthaus on Mass Ave (now, alas, also a victim of mall creep in Harvard Square) where Spike used to sit behind the desk forever and knew every book in SF creation and where you could find it? (sigh)

You must mean Pandemonium Books and Games. It's still in Harvard Square -- it's in the Garage. It's where I get my SF and gaming fix.

Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 04:20 PM:

Someone wayabouts upthread there remarked that the one downside of the Internet bookstores is that you can't browse them. A lot of people agree with that, but I think it's one of those issues where perception lags reality. I routinely browse Amazon -- they've got personalized (if not always totally accurate) recommendations, interesting "Other customers who bought this book bought..." links, lists of somehow-associated books put together by their users. And nowadays, a lot of the books even let you read excerpts from inside.

Plus, they have REVIEWS. I'm so spoiled by those that I can barely even stand to buy an unfamiliar book at a physical bookstore, because all I know about it is what I can see on the packaging.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 04:30 PM:

Alex, I'm glad to know that Bakka is doing okay in the Yonge Street location (Glad Day is upstairs, right?), but its days of true thriving were when it was on Queen Street West and occupied two storefronts.

In those days, before Indigo and Chapters and even before The World's Biggest Coles Store, it had to compete with a ton more generalized used bookstores, but most chain stores would only have a couple of books out of a series or by a particular author at any given time. Bakka was the place to go if you wanted something specific that hadn't been pushed by the distributors' sales staffs lately. These days, having "more like this one" isn't a unique feature of specialty stores.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 04:33 PM:

No doubt that chain bookstores have brought lots of great books to places previously without good bookstores. And no doubt that a lot of independent and specialty stores suck (especially the ones that won't let you read anything, even if you're already carrying a load of intended purchases under your arm).

But the best independents are still better than the best chains. Even if not in their stock, in their ability to bring interesting books to your attention, books that you'd previously not heard of.

When I go to a good independent - e.g. Cody's in Berkeley, Vroman's in Pasadena, Tattered Cover in Denver - there will be fascinating non-fiction (fiction, too, but esp. non-fiction) on display, books from major publishers that I hadn't seen anywhere else. Maybe B&N had them, certainly they could order them, but what I needed was someone to show them to me.

That's just part of the advantages of good independents, but it's a big thing and a big part.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 04:49 PM:

Paraphrasing a letter of mine published in _Whole Earth_ a couple years back:

I grew up in a wealthy hamlet on Long Island. (My family wasn't wealthy; we lived in the servant and tradesman part o' town.) It had an antiquarian bookshop (grouchy bastard in charge; SF&F, none; science books, none) and a tony boutique bookshop (safe bestsellers, perrenials, coffee table books, and lots of gifts). Independant bookstores, but not worth snot to *me,* a high-school SF-nerd who'd gotten a whiff of Stapledon.
Glen Cove, the next town over, had no bookstores after 1971 or so. (The drug stores had bookracks where you could buy Ballentine fantasies and stuff about ESP. Wheee.) Sea Cliff and Oyster Bay: More antiquarian shops.

For the teenage me, getting to a decent bookstore meant a trip to Hicksville or Manhasset, and those were storefront chain outlets (Brentanos, B. Dalton). Train trips to Manhattan were an option, and one I took advantage of. (The pre-chain Barnes & Noble sales outlet was like paradise on Earth.)

SO: When Barnes & Noble opened up a big-ass superstore in Garden City at about the same time I learned to drive, man was I happy. BIG place. Clean, well lit, giant news-stand, big computer section, big SF&F section.

I can't imagine how the coming of a B&N or Borders to a nearby highway exit strip mall would feel to someone in the some midwestern outback, where books were something you bought in drug stores or at a Scholastic Book Sale. Maybe like dirt farmers on an backwater colony planet would feel if Galactic General Products opened a synth-o-mat nearby.

Trent Walters ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 04:50 PM:

[I added my last name since I see another Trent in the same list]

By all means, crusade books! I do think, however, that the big chains by-pass an important venue: the small press, the only place publishing the majority of important authors' story collections.

The case-scenario in Omaha, NE, is that Merchants of Venus--which is out of business and through which I bought Yolen's out-of-print collection, _Tales of Wonder_--carried a similar number to the five local Borders and B&N, but Borders carries the very occasional Golden Gryphon collection (I bought Robert Reed's there) while B&N has carried only one small press book in all my year's of combing: Meisha Merlin's SP Somtow's _The Ultimate Mallword_. I do most of my small press shopping online, but I do miss finding the rare and out-of-print editions that Merchants of Venus carried (granted, unless he'd put them in the cheap rack, I preferred buying them through Chris Drumm who saved me a few bucks though his "everyday specials"). Now that I think about it, I prefer ordering through Chris over the big-chain or independent stores; however, for convenience sake, he needs to list his store holdings online, so I can browse at my leisure and not have to transcribe what I'm interested in.

I can't even find his 3-year-old website. His email was something like chrisdrumm@aol.com or cdrumm@aol.com or simply drumm@aol.com. I forget.

Chris Drumm Books
PO Box 445
Polk City, IA 50226-0445

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 04:52 PM:

The best independents are better than the best chains, no question, but the problem is that there's so comparatively few of them.

Simon, you've listed three: one could continue i.e.

Seattle -- Elliott Bay, Third Place, University
Portland -- Powell's, 23rd Ave.
Menlo Park -- Kepler's
LA -- Book Soup
Austin -- Bookpeople
St. Louis -- Left Bank
DC -- Olssen's
Louisville -- Hawley-Cooke
Lexington, Cincinnati, Cleveland -- Joseph-Beth
Dayton -- Books & Co.
Minneapolis -- Ruminator
Champaign/Savoy -- Pages For All Ages
Jackson, MI -- Lemuria

I'll stop here, but the basic point is that the best independent bookstores in the US can be listed pretty easily, off the top of this given publishing professional's head; and if you don't happen to live in an area so blessed (and I for one would love to have Powell's, say, in NYC), then B & N and Borders provide far more than what used to be available to the US reading public at large.

Charles Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 04:54 PM:

I know the argument that the chains are a whole lot better than nothing, and that for much of the country, nothing was the only other choice. And to some extent, I can buy into it.

But what's genuinely odd to me about the conversation, from my perch here in Boston, is how different this place seems to be from the rest of the country. Counting suburbs which are on the subway, we have specialty bookshops in SF (Pandemonium --- the shop that used to be over the Wursthaus, which is now a block away in the Garage), poetry (Grolier's), foreign language (Schoenhof's), computers and other tech (Quantum), mystery (Spenser's), a couple of gay bookstores (at least) which I can't name off the top of my head, and several excellent indpendent general booksellers. And there are also quite a few good used bookshops, a few specialists I haven't named, no doubt, and several high-end antiquarians.

It doesn't surprise me that there are more bookshops here than your average city; Boston is, among other things, a college town writ huge. But the extent of the difference is a bit of a surprise; if a specialty SF store is making ends meet here, in high-rent Harvard Square no less, can there really be none in freaking New York?

I'm not complaining, mind you. If there's something in the water here, I would be thrilled to see someone make more of the stuff and dump it in the reservoirs somewhere else. (Dare I suggest DC?) But it sure seems odd...

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:00 PM:

Yes, there can really be none in freaking New York. A number of the older bookstores in town had 10 to 20 year leases originally signed in the late 60s-early 70s, when NYC wasn't exactly prime territory, and when those leases ran out the rents went up to, well, astronomical levels.

This happened not only to bookstores, of course. One of the stores I miss most in NYC was the old Lionel Train store on E. 23rd just off Park Ave., which sold only Lionel trains and related equipment and had a fabulous neon sign besides. When its lease ran out in the late 80s, out it went. Replaced by a Sox Shop chain that lasted maybe six months.

CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:02 PM:

You know, it's not just F&SF or gay speciality bookstores that are dissappearing. For more than a decade, Computer Literacy Bookstore on Trimble in San Jose was one of the true landmarks of Silicon Valley. I would carefully arrange my schedule when hitting Macworld or some other trade show in SF to make it down 101 to CLB to load up on stuff that was just not available anywhere else on earth.

They apparently had management problems on and off, and opened and closed other locations. What (IMHO) killed them off was not just competitors like Amazon (CLB was bought out by a Amazon competitor wannabe, Fatbrain) but mainstream bookstores, especially the chains, stocking lots more computer titles. I can now find stuff out here in the wilds of the SJ Valley that I might have had a hard time finding at CLB. Once you took away their position as the only place to find stuff, they weren't that good a bookstore.

JoKeR ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:06 PM:

In Atlanta the "Science Fiction and Mystery Bookstore" is making one more stab at a new location. They have a fairly strong support base among locals and I think the newest location will be much better than their current location (it's closer to my home, for one thing :-) ).

One of the best bookstores in Atlanta for years was Oxford Books, however when they opened a second location only a few miles from their original store (what were they thinking?) and mismanaged their accounts (a friend who worked there told me they couldn't do special orders except as cash transactions because their credit was so bad with the distibuters) they did themselves in. For general bookstores the Borders and B&N stores are currently the best stores in town of which I am aware.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:10 PM:

Patrick: "It crawled out of my keyboard, honest."

Hmmm, if it can crawl, then it isn't nailed down, is it? :-)

Alex: "It's actually an interesting issue in itself as to whether it's desirable to have a separate gay fiction section within a big box store."

I guess I'm against ghettoization, except when I'm actually shopping. Then it's easier to find the stuff I want. But then I haven't found any fiction worth reading by browsing in a long, long time. The sections are all crowded with TV and movie novelizations - even VIDEOGAME novelizations! - and The Sword of This or Gem of That trilogies. Never sure whether to yawn or vomit, let me tell you.

I read China Mountain Zhang, and while I liked it, I just barely remember that the protag was gay. Did he, like, have a boyfriend or something? Someone direct me to an SF novel where the protagonist is gay, and has relationships and stuff, and is an actual hero. You know, like Miles Vorkosigan, not perfect, not LitFas or anything...actually Miles is a great example, because he's frankly pretty lustful - I want to read about a gay Miles Vorkosigan, that's what. (I doubt writing to LMB about this would do any good; the only alternative is to write slash, which really just won't do.)

Patrick again: "...Or, alternately, that SF fans are less worried than mainstream readers about the terrifying prospect of reading a novel about somebody with the wrong orientation."

Well, I certainly found in the early 80s that fandom was much cooler about me being gay than the gay community was about me being a fan. Supports what I've said elsewhere about the positive effect of speculative fiction on the mind.

Mike: "Someone wayabouts upthread there remarked that the one downside of the Internet bookstores is that you can't browse them. A lot of people agree with that, but I think it's one of those issues where perception lags reality."

The kind of browsing you talk about is not what I mean. I cannot browse on Amazon, because I want to wander around, glancing at the shelves, ignoring what's put out front as a Bestseller or Book of Note, and just grab what catches my eye. Maybe I'll read part of it, not necessarily the beginning. I do that several times, until one book makes me actually buy it. Sometimes I buy a book because it feels like I should; can't get a "read" off a book that's in a warehouse somewhere. If you can tell me how I can do that on a website, I'll concede your point, but frankly I can't imagine that working.

Bryant ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:10 PM:

Future Fantasy went under, speaking of Silicon Valley, but I blame that on the general dot-com collapse. Once you take away the disposable income of a significant percentage of the area, they stop spending as much money on SF.

M Noel ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:23 PM:

Another thing that the comic and book markets seem to have in common is that used stock and stores are slowly wasting away. In comics, back issues seem to have been replaced by bound editions, which is fine unless you want to find, say, the complete run of Legion of Super Heroes from 1989 through the current day. The selection, even in big ("big") stores like St. Marks or Chicago Comics, is limited.

Hearing that Academy is gone just reminds me of the passing of Aspidistra, here in Chicago. Myopic is OK, but I don't think there are many places left where you can find, say, copies of out-of-print paperbacks (sf, mystery, horror) for under a buck. And Aspisdistra used to have shelves full of them.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:45 PM:

Xopher writes: "I guess I'm against ghettoization, except when I'm actually shopping. Then it's easier to find the stuff I want."

Which answers so many questions about why publishing categories are as they are.

"Charles Dodgson": You aren't imagining things. New York is a mediocre book town. Boston is a glorious book town. We notice the contrast, too.

Damien ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:48 PM:

And speaking of Future Fantasy, I still miss them. The chains are wonderful, and carry far more science fiction than any bookstore I had access to while growing up in backwoods Connecticut, but they still can't compare to a really good specialty store.

I couldn't walk into Future Fantasy without walking out with my arms full of books. Alas, I can't say the same for the local Borders.

Hard Pressed ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:53 PM:

Well, suddenly I feel blessed. Here I've been telling myself that Cincinnati was an illiterate, intolerant, homophobic, racist city, and yet--and yet--there's the Pink Pyramid (gay) downtown (anti-porn crusader Simon Leis tried to shut it down and failed), Crazy Ladies (lesbian) in Northside, a Joseph-Beths in Norwood (semi-indy), a great used/collectible place in Clifton (the name escapes me), Kaldi's (a bar[!] that sells used books, and, and, -- I'm getting breathless -- Shake-It Records has a decent collection of rare graphic novels, zines, journals, and "alternative" books (besides being an indy record store/music label/music distributer). Numerous college bookstores (UC, Xavier). A great old-fashioned newstand downtown for periodicals. I see more small African-American shops than I'm aware of. And a big-box bookstore at damn near every exit off every interstate.

Manhattan has no independent gay bookstore, and Cincinnati (cf. Maplethorpe, Flynt, Leis) has two. Whodathunkit?

Hard Pressed ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 05:59 PM:

Man, I went nuts with the parentheses. The missing one goes after "used books), and, and".

Oh, well. At least that post conveys excitement at bookstores, if not the concomitant literacy that usually entails.

CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 06:11 PM:

Funny thing, Bryant, CLB went under before the overall crash.

Hmmm . . . an omen? (grin)

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 07:05 PM:

Jack Womack: OK, granted, there aren't that many truly great large independents. But there used to be more, and they're the best. When the chains horn in on them and they close, the top available level of bookstore quality goes down.

Good on the chains for bringing the top level of bookstore quality up in suburbs, small towns, etc. Bad on the chains for bringing it down in bigger cities.

There are ways to do something on Amazon that bears a vague familiar relationship to browsing. But it just ain't the same thing. I'm with Xopher: I need a browsing experience I can't get online. But I also need a great online in-print list like Amazon's.

Someone mentioned Future Fantasy, a late SF specialty store in Silicon Valley. I remember visiting that one. I can't say I miss it.

Temperance ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 07:25 PM:

Have to agree that for most communities, the chains outclass whatever else is there. The Podunk/East Jesus where I grew up had one store with one shelf of "books" -- mostly religious tract crapola. Now, although the town is still provincial, narrow-minded, and boring, at least there's a Waldenbooks at the local mall -- I'd have thought I died and went to heaven if there'd been one when I was 12. Now that I live in LA I miss the great independent bookstores that used to be here -- like Campbell's near UCLA -- and I have to schlep miles out to the Val to get to Dangerous Visions, but I never knock the chains!

Josh ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 07:30 PM:

Bryant: the Borders in Emeryville regularly carries British editions of Iain Banks' work (both M. and non-M.), although they stock it all in the general fiction section as opposed to the SF. I haven't seen much other imported SF there, though.

Sadly, the new Barnes and Noble in Emeryville is atrocious. The fiction section seems sizable, but the non-fiction is worse than any other B&N I've ever been in.

I've never found an independent that had as good a history section as the Borders in Emeryville, either. The Tattered Cover came close, but BookPeople and both Cody's pale in comparison.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 07:40 PM:

"The Borders in Emeryville regularly carries British editions of Iain Banks' work (both M. and non-M)."

Gosh that's interesting. I wonder what the American publishers, holders of exclusive licenses to distribute in North America, think of that? Most recently Simon and Shuster?

(Yes, I know Dead Air hasn't found an American publisher yet, which is a shame because it's a truly ingenious thriller. He said. Pointedly.)

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 07:58 PM:

Simon, I know Kroch & Bretano in Chicago went under, and Pickwick in LA, and a number of the aforementioned stores in NYC, the biggest of which were Coliseum, Scribner's and Brentano's (no relation to K & B in Chicago). I can also think of some small regional stores and chains that have also gone under for a variety of reasons -- ranging from bigger chain competition to the store's profits going up the nose of the owner.

What are some other large independents that went under due to direct competition from chain stores? I know there are at least a couple I'm not thinking of, presently -- by big I mean Cody's/Tattered Cover size.

Here in NYC, Brentano's went under in 1979 due to financial mismanagement; Scribner's was enfolded into Rizzoli in the late 80s after the publisher (prior to its being sold by the Scribner family to S & S)quite literally dumped the stores (the Scribners were never financial wizards, either), and Coliseum, which lost customers to both the B & Ns further up Broadway, nevertheless closed only when the new owners of the building raised the rent so high as to prevent a renewal of the lease.

The thing is that this:

>>When the chains horn in on them and they close, the top available level of bookstore quality goes down

happens only when there was a good independent store in the neighborhood in the first place, whatever the size of the city. "Good" of course is a subjective opinion -- I was never a fan of the late Books & Company here in NYC, for instance, but plenty of writers were.

Frankly, the customer service at the B & Ns and Borders in NYC is, if no better, at least no worse than it has ever been at any of the independents here in town, past and present; and while I never count on anyone at either of the aforementioned chain stores ever knowing anything concerning the stock, I never get the attitude from their employees I'm sure I, like all my co-workers in those long-ago stores,often turned on the customers. I am sure this is not the case, or a problem, in other cities (I think of the West Coast, particularly).

(Re: Coliseum, further. I can now quote specific figures here, so everyone can get an idea of what I'm talking about when I referred to "astronomical" rents: The new owners insisted that the rent be doubled, to $300 a square foot for the upstairs, $75 for the basement -- monthly, of course; Coliseum had 12,000 square feet, and that was a nut that simply could not be made.)

Jon ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 07:58 PM:

A quick note to an early remark:
I wonder if the effect of the chains on independents is not the most important question -- what about the effect of the chains on local libraries?

The most visible effect of chain bookstores on libraries is that most of them gave up the war on prohibiting food/drink. All those in-store coffeehouses.

Josh ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 08:19 PM:

I wrote: "The Borders in Emeryville regularly carries British editions of Iain Banks' work (both M. and non-M)."

Patrick wrote: Gosh that's interesting. I wonder what the American publishers, holders of exclusive licenses to distribute in North America, think of that? Most recently Simon and Shuster?

Me again: I have no idea, although I've wondered about it several times, particularly when noticing the "not for sale in the U.S." small print on the backs of the books. What's even more interesting is that that Borders is not unique. I've found British editions of Banks' stuff in quite a number of the bookstores I've been to in the Bay Area, including Cody's and Black Oak Books.

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 08:29 PM:

Bryant, Charles, and Neel,

Thanks for the update on Pandemonium. But was it always in the Garage? Or did that move from another Harvard Sq location?

Speaking of which, McIntyre & More, which used to be on Mass Ave just outside of the Square, always had a great SF section worth checking on lunch breaks (when I worked at Readers Guide, the shittiest company any starving writer ever had to work for). M&& is still around, but I think they're farther down toward Central Square.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 08:37 PM:

Two points: From 1984 until 1992, I helped manage a science-fiction specialty shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Well, more correctly, I helped manage a store which had started as an sf specialty shop in 1978; by the time I started working there, more than 50% of its revenue was from comics and games, and this remained true until I left. (I still get my comics mail-ordered to me from there.)

I visited there a few months back for the first time in five years. They still stock sf, but less than they used to, and when the shop changes owners later this year, it will stop carrying books. They can't compete with the Borders and the two B&N superstores within easy driving distance. They could, conceivably, carry the real specialty items, the 50-copy chapbooks (in hardcover for $75), but they can't make a profit on the bread-and-butter sf items like the eight monthly titles from Tor and the four monthly titles from Del Rey, because the chains get them earlier and can sell them at discount. And, of course, the chains also carry a lot of the small press stuff now, too.

And you know what? I'm not sure this is a bad thing. The comics are still doing well--better this year than last, even. The shop is in no danger of going out of business. Anyone who wants sf in Chapel Hill can go to B&N or to B&N.com. And Chapel Hill is flooded with used book stores. (The only place I've ever been with more used book stores per capita is Cambridge, Mass.) So if my shop stops carrying used sf, well, there are plenty of other places to check on that score as well.

My second point is that several people (both here and, more explicitly Jeanne D'Arc in the post Patrick blogged later) have bemoaned the loss of the customer service provided by the independent bookstore owner, the type of person who "is always ready to make suggestions for customers she gets to know". I was that type of clerk, and so were most of the people who worked with me, but it seems clear that that type of service isn't worth the money for most people.

It strikes me that there's a market opportunity for the type of people who are good at finding overlooked books and bringing them to the attention of other people who might enjoy them.
(The snarky impulse is to call them "reviewers", but the skills involved aren't identical.) Using nothing more than an Amazon Affiliate program number, one could actually make money online by assembling lists of "If you like these books, try these books"; the people who did this more reliably or more charmingly would make more money and get more attention and drive more business to their "store".

<underwear gnome voice>Step three: Profits!</underwear gnome voice>

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 08:38 PM:

Talking of British editions -- Does anyone know whether Foyle's in London has suffered from the opening of a Waterstone's and a Borders in the same part of Charing Cross Road? (I also wonder about the small independents there -- though I would suspect that already having to compete with Foyle's was something of a vaccination.) I do know that it's easier to find things in Foyle's now than it was twelve years ago, and can't help but wonder if that's in response to competition.

On this side of the pond, I miss A Clean Well-Lighted Place in Cupertino and Printer's Inc. in Mountain View, but on the other hand I can now get both books and espresso in Lincoln, Nebraska, so all in all I think it's a net gain. I don't think Cody's is in danger; the death of ACWLP and PI was, I think, a case of "location, location, location" more than anything else -- location and changing neighborhood demographics.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 08:44 PM:

Jack Womack wrote:

The thing is that this:

>>When the chains horn in on them and they close, the top available level of bookstore quality goes down

happens only when there was a good independent store in the neighborhood in the first place, whatever the size of the city.

Yes, I know, Jack: I pointed out twice that a chain can't kill an independent unless there's an independent there to kill. I'm not sure why you keep saying this as if it were a rebuttal to something I said.

Chains can be good in some circumstances, bad in others. OK?

See Jeanne d'Arc's post in her weblog (the one Patrick links to in an update to a later post of his) for an example of how chains really can cause the quality of book selection to go down.

Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 08:56 PM:

British editions: I've noticed that in Borders with more than just Banks, actually. It's slightly disconcerting to see so many imports and small press titles in a supposedly-mass-market chain bookstore.

Kevin: If there's one thing the Internet is not lacking in, it's ways to find book recommendations. I really like booklogs (brought to my attention by Kate Nepveu, in her "Outside of a Dog", linked on Patrick's blogroll), for a number of reasons -- not the least of which is the voyeuristic thrill of seeing people talk about all the books that they read, not just the ones that would normally excite comment.

CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 09:07 PM:

Josh wrote:
I've never found an independent that had as good a history section as the Borders in Emeryville, either. The Tattered Cover came close, but BookPeople and both Cody's pale in comparison.

I agree with you about the Emeryville store, Josh. I love its location in the old public market, instead of the ususal box, so you actually know where you are . . . In Berkeley, Cody's is OK, but Moe's next door is a treasure.

General question -- I am familiar with SF, mystery, food, childrens, gay/lesbian, and childrens bookstores, but does anyone know of a good bookstore specializing in history?

Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:01 PM:

The main observation I was trying to make in my last post, and clearly did not, was that not all failed independents have gone under because of competition from chain stores.

Paul ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:05 PM:

I had noticed, too, that the Borders I once frequented had an unusual number of British imports on its shelves. Adam Lee and Iain Banks were just two of them.

Depressingly, however, the Borders I once frequented was in the corner of the World Trade Center. Since moving out to the West Coast, though, the Borders here do not seem to do that sort of thing, although the quantity of standard SF and fantasy has never been higher. I had been worried for years that core SF and Fantasy would be crowded out by tie-ins and the like, but it hasn't happened.

And when all else fails, online bookstores ranging from amazon down to the websites of independent presses is a boon.

I had been upset when the SF Shop in the Village closed, and Forbidden Planet pared away its SF titles, but I am not upset anymore

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:10 PM:

That Borders in the World Trade Center was great. Why do I lay on the HTML styling? Because they were a truly great bookstore. Which is to say, they stocked all three volumes of Starlight. Do you have a better definition?

Saying that NYC's Forbidden Planet "pared away its SF titles" is tactful. "Was on credit hold with almost every publisher in town" would be more like it, from what I understand.

Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:15 PM:

Every Borders I've been to on a semi-regular basis (in Maryland, Connecticut, and New York) has carried both small press books (NESFA, Meisha Merlin, Golden Gryphon) and British imports. I'm not sure how they manage the import thing (the few I've bought are packed away in boxes, so I can't look to see if they're stamped "Not to be sold in then United States"), but it's a nice feature from the POV of someone who has no financial stake in the publishing industry.

Barnes & Noble is a lot more variable-- there was a really nice one in a soulless strip mall along the Rockville Pike in Maryland, and the Wolf Road outlet in Albany is pretty good (they have a much better selection of science books than the Borders across the street), but the Connecticut branches I've been to were barely adequate, and I used to make occasional runs up past Hartford to the Borders in Manchester.

Even the weakest B&N's I've been to were orders of magnitude better than the Waldencoles outlets in the local mall that supplied most of my childhood reading. Johnson City, NY does offer an SF specialty shop with a good selection (Fat Cat Books) but slightly erratic service, but the first time I set foot in the Borders in Gaithersburg was as close to a religious experience as I'd had in years...

Of course, this discussion has left out the other big draw of the major chains: Borders sells both books and CD's, making it ever so much more convenient to run up my credit-card balance... Other than the fact that two thirds of their "listening stations" don't actually work, the Wolf Road Borders is also the best record store I've found in the Albany area, with a whole section (labelled "Left of the Dial") of the sort of obscure indie records you used to see cited in sneering reviews in Spin, and a much more expansive selection of general pop/rock stuff than the other local record stores I've been in.

(I dropped close to $200 in that Borders earlier this afternoon, mostly on CD's. $30-ish went to Tor, though, so I'm doing my part to support Electrolite...)

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:16 PM:

Powell's here in Portland is able to compete with the chains on their own terms, or almost. Maybe the chains are a little cheaper on new releases, but Powell's has lots of old hard-to-find and specialist books and is a million times better as a browsing experience.

Powell's really felt a pinch from internet booksellers though, and made a big internet push of their own. This required a reorganization which led to a strike and a lot of hard feeling from the staff. One of the reason Powell's has been so good is that they've always had a lot of PhD-quality people working for peanuts, and when job satisfaction went down trouble arose.

If you know what you want and it's not a bestseller, online is in most cases the only way to go. When I discovered online booksellers I immediately bought 40+ books I'd been looking for for as long as 20 years, and I only paid a greater-than-new price for 3 of them.

Www.bookfinder.com can find anything. Abebooks.com is also good and has the advantage of being an umbrella group for a large number of small local bookstores. So you can buy online and keep a local bookstore in business too. Bookfinder will steer you to Amazon or B&N along with all the others. (ABE seems to be wiorkign with Amazon these days, not sure).

A friend of mine running a quality 2nd-hand bookstore says 80-90% of his sales are on-line -- I think he's thinking of moving to get cheaper rent and deemphasizing the walk-in trade.

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:37 PM:

I regret the decline of small specialty bookstores for a reason at right angles to the issue of whether they provide title selection or customer service on a par with chain stores.

S-f and comic book stores have been watering holes for fan communities for over 50 years: places where visitors converse with store clerks, and where parties and readings are held.

If it has to be about providing the most efficient retail experience, these hobbit holes may well be on their way to extinction. But something non-fiscally valuable may be lost along with them.

Josh ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:00 PM:

Cmuncey: I've never been crazy about Moe's, mostly because outside of the used genre books they seemed to be rather disorganized. Not at the level of the Strand, but then what is?

Rich ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:06 PM:

B&N and Borders may be godsends to 2nd string markets, but they are often weak in many areas. I read a lot of mysteries when I travel (and I travel often) and have yet to find a Border's or B&N with a really good mystery section. NYC still has at least one great mystery book store (I order from them by mail), but DC & Bethesda have lost their's and I'm not sure what LA still has. these stores are important because they carry more backlist and more odd authors and any genre fan will tell you that they love findinga quirky new book or reading the entire works of an author they'd missed. The sf scetions in the chains look no bigger than the mystery sections so I would guess that similar kinds of gaps are there, too. Travel is another area where the chains are often weak and I'm thankful for a store in Pasadena (Distant Lands) that does mail order. People have mentioned the availability of gay books, but the gay aisle is often suspiciously devoid of customers even in Midtown Atlanta (our gay ghetto) or even in SF or Chicago.

My other complaint about B&N and Border's is that don't seem to really elevate the level of what's available locally. The Atlana B&N and Border's stores are the worst. I have no rouble walking out of branchs of these chains in Boston, SF, Chicago, etc. with somethingeven if I originally had nothing in mind, but the Atlanta branches are lucky if they have something that I've heard about from book reviews or personal recommendations. I never walk out with impulse purchases.

Specialty book stores often relied on mailorder to make a profit and the ones that were slow to move this part of the business to the internet got clobbered. The manager of Mystery Books in DC saw this as a downfall along with the deterioration of DC's tourism after 9/11. I would guess tha NYC's bookstores haven't been helped by 9/11 either.

Despite the examples of speciality books in chains, I still find new authors, new genres and non-mainstream boosk easier to find at places like Elliott Bay or Vroomans', or specialty shops like Murder Inc. or Distant Lands. Those of us who profess to love these places better keep shopping them. Even though I think some gnre and used places will stick around, I suspect there are too many who've gotten lazy going to supermarkes like Border's.

Charles Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:29 PM:

John, a few updates:

Pandemonium did move from another Harvard Sq. location; they were originally above the Wursthaus (which is just gone; the building was gutted --- it was structurally unsound --- a new one was built behind the old facade, and the space is now occupied by an Abercrombie and Fitch).

McIntyre and Moore actually moved the other way; it's now in Davis Square, Somerville (and their SF section has shrunk to near nothing, though that's a weak spot in a store which is still otherwise first-rate, particularly on technical books). You might be thinking of (IIRC) Rodney's, a newer used book store near Central Sq. The used bookstores in Boston I'd try for SF right now would be the used section of the Harvard Book Store (not the Coop!), the Boston Book Annex near St. Mary's on the C branch of the Green Line, and Avenue Victor Hugo on Newbury St. near Mass Ave. (though Victor Hugo is moving next door to a smaller space, and I'm not sure how much of their inventory they'll be able to keep).

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 11:43 PM:

I just want to say that, although I've read this thread many times on Usenet, over the years, that the newly revised set of contributors, and updated accounts, is why I thought it was a crying shame, though not a criminal offense, when Patrick, understandably, put a moratorium on comments.

And, again, that I'm extremely gratified that he took, and takes, the trouble to open them again. I'm grateful and thankful that he did.

Despite the problems, you draw a great crowd, Patrick. And I'm mostly posting to say that I'm gratified to see that Jim Meadows is still the Third. He has been, after all, since we were all teens.

Trivial note: I may be, and usually am, mistaken, but I seem to recall that Jim Freund was one of the many many managers, or semi-managers, or somesuch, of Coliseum, at some point in the late Seventies or early Eighties.

And, hey now, I have such fond nostalgic memories of the place, myself, never having actually worked there, but having, among other things, used it as a useful survey of the marketplace back when I was at Avon Books across the street, in our incarnations at that time in 1986.

Not to mention having grown up floating around the place from the age of about 12 when I was running off to Manhattan by myself, but still pretty much confined to buying paperbacks from Brighton Beach used book dealers at ten cents and twenty-five cents, on my allowance.

Coliseum Books remained a realistic icon of my youth, a place I would Yet Make Use Of. Scribners was more of a museum, a place to be astonished by, but never expect to actually spend money at, save in the fabulous future fantasies of millionairedom.

Nice to tour through, though.

Minty ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 12:13 AM:

I work in an independent bookshop in a very small mountian town in North Carolina (parts of Deliverence were filmed here if that helps anyone get the flavor) and I've got to say I'm pretty conflicted by alot of what I'm reading.
On the one hand I'm all for getting the widest selection of books out to the largest number of people possible, but at the same time I think that indys, when run well and properly, provide something special.
Look, we can't match the in shop selection of the B&N 60 miles away, but we have a staff that know and love books and more, who have a passion and skill for connecting people with them. There's not a one of us working there (for pay that the the owner regularly apologizes for) with less than a masters degree and if our physical stock is thinner than the B&N 60 miles away we at least know our stock and have in our heads an index of other options that we can have in the customer's hands in 2-3 days. Heck, I've even helped rec books -at- the B&N when the clerk had no idea what his customer was talking about. It just drove me nuts to hear this kid's puzzlement over what "Belleau Wood" might be.
No we can't keep a huge stock, we don't have the money to both keep a large inventory and pay the rest of our bills. We do play to our strenghts, we've got a regional section that I doubt any store in this part of the state can beat, and we like to promote mountain authors. I'm sorry to the authors who's books we don't keep in stock. (Ms. Yolen, we don't keep alot of your stuff on the shelf but I sure as heck rec it) But in the age of online booksellers should that really matter that much? Given the choice I'd much rather have a bright, capable staff who can help me find the book that I'm not even sure I'm looking for than I would a huge box store where I can barely tell the wheat for all the chaff.
And in our place we've got events every week (often more), an obscenely contented cat who might favor you with a lap visit, a first class restaurant downstairs, comfy chairs, and a fireplace. We were in the vanguard of the revitalization of our downtown. I like to think our little mountain town is a much better place for our being here. Maybe I'm wrong.
Yes, in some places there is no choice but the big boxes and that's fine. But does it have to be zero sum? Where there is a choice between a big box and a well run indy why not pick the indy?
(And what was I doing at the B&N where I did the freelance rec'ing? They do, or rather did, make good brownies)

Damien Warman ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 12:16 AM:

I'll second Lenny's comment: Austin lost a nice venue for the just-got-in-to-town fan when Willie Siros had to close Adventures in Crime and Space. Book People is excellent, and one can chat to people like Steven Weinberg there from time to time, but fannish watering hole it ain't.

I'd like to make some remark on the bookstore situation in Australia, but I can't. Oh well. Maybe it'll be better by the time I get back, but I think that the currency and tax will still be punishing, and I shall return to the libraries of my youth.

Alison, I wonder if being able to take a bucket of books for a reasonably short period of time is one of the things that contributes to becoming a voracious reader: certainly I fell upon the mobile library bus with great glee as a six year old.

Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 12:44 AM:

Patrick writes: From this we can conclude that being science-fictional is less culturally respectable than being gay. Or, alternately, that SF fans are less worried than mainstream readers about the terrifying prospect of reading a novel about somebody with the wrong orientation.

I conclude that the only reason gay fiction has to exist is that the character(s) be gay. As compared to SF, where having gay characters rarely, if ever, gets in the way of the story, although being gay may well be an integral part of the character.

It's like that definition of SF: If you take away the science fiction element, can you still tell the story or is it cowboys and indians with lasers? Hence: if you take away the gay aspects, can the story still be told, or might it as well be gender neutral?

Tony Cullen ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 07:43 AM:

In response to the query about Foyle's:

It's still going, amazingly. I did read some years ago that it mainly survived on mail-order business, the actual shop being so badly organised that it was horrible to browse in. The greater threat recently has probably been the rise of Amazon.

And then, a couple of years ago, some member of the Foyles family (who owned shares in the business) started to take an interest in what was actually going on in there (massive fraud, amongst other things).

There has been a reorganisation and the place has come back to life, somewhat. Most recently, when Silver Moon (the women's bookshop on Charing Cross Road) was forced to close, Foyle's effectively took them in and got them to run their women's section. (In fact, the Silver Moon people may have 'set up shop' in Foyle's, I haven't been in for a while.)

It may be no coincidence that the Waterstone's next door was shut down and/or was consolidated into the Oxford Street or Piccadilly branch.

Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 07:59 AM:

Patrick: My recollection of the Borders in the World Trade Center was that it had a fairly small sf section, but that the staff was very enthusiastic (I base this on someone going and getting _Curse of Chalion_ for me, out of a box upstairs, at a time when I was extremely twitchy to have it).

Chad: while it's true that Borders & B&N are both pretty variable, I prefer Borders just because of the horrible things B&N does when running college bookstores. (The last straw was realizing that the Yale B&N was selling, e.g., the then-latest Jordan book at full price, while the one a couple towns down had it discounted at 30%. Ugh.)

Damien, I also suspect that the ability to take a bucket of books out of the library helped make me a voracious reader, though I can't exactly prove this. *resists turning this into a lament for libraries I no longer have access to* Anyway, today I buy more books and check less things out of the library, but that's because I actually have disposable income now--we still hit the library pretty regularly.

Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 08:03 AM:

For me, the difference between bookstores comes down to the knowledge of the staff.

A couple of anecdotes:

I stopped in the big B&N on Fifth Ave a couple or three years ago. Saw they had a number of my books (maybe ten different titles) and spoke to the saleswoman (when I could find one.) Would they like me to sign the books? Had to haul out my identification so she knew I wasn't a crazy lady off the street. She said she'd speak to her manager. The manager looked at me sidewise, checked the ID, asked me to sign my latest. I touched five--"These are all the latest," I said. "Pick one," he said. "No thank you," I said--and left.

Alternate story--I walked into a small children's book shop in Oregon. A woman is saying to the
counter person, "Do you carry a book about a child who opens the door at a family Seder and goes back in time?" The counter person says, "You must mean Devil's Arithmetic." I say, "I am the author." There are screams, shouts, from the back room comes the owner, another saleswoman; they phone across the street to a third who is having lunch at the deli. I must sit down and sign all their stock and posters and, of course, the woman buys not one but two copies of the book. And then there is the signing wall where visiting authors leave a message and. . .

This is a difference I have seen repeated too often to bore you with more.

Though on occasion, I have (certainly locally and in my daughter's B&N in South Carolina) seen it reversed with a fine person at a chainstore making all the difference. It really comes down to staff.


Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 09:14 AM:

Chris Drumm's site is at http://members.aol.com/cdrummbks/ --google is your friend.

Giovanni's Room (the gay bookstore in Philadelphia) has a pathetic little sf section. I get the impression that no one there knows much about sf, but for all I know, they might be gauging their customers accurately, too.

In Philly, the Borders and the Barnes & Noble are a block and a half from each other, and the Borders is a little better for what I care about-- there's a better display of new paperbacks downstairs, there's the selection of small press sf, and the magazine racks are low enough for me to be able to reach everything. Still, I buy most of my science fiction at conventions--the selection (and conveniance--I'm never sure whether the major bookstores don't get the new paperbacks as reliably as Larry Smith does, or if they just file them into the rest of their sf) is a *lot* better. I never thought I'd move to a major city and have to say that.

Anyone want to talk about specialty bookstores online? The only one that's crossed my path is Jessica Amanda Salmonson's http://www.violetbooks.com/ (Antiquarian Supernatural, Fantasy & Mysterious Literatures) -- and there's a rant about why she prefers being online at http://www.violetbooks.com/curmudgeon.html .

Mike Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 10:11 AM:

To respond to the comment on Foyles:

It is still going strong and has modernised to a great extent. I believe because Mrs. Foyle who ran it has handed over to her son.

Though I do miss the old days when you'd go in looking for a computer book. You'd have to know who published it as everything (including fiction) was organised by publisher. Having found it, you handed it over to a member of staff who gave you a chit that you took to the cashier. These cashiers were in little boxes, were usually East Europeasn (a very badly paid) and Foyles only took Cash or cheques, no cards.

Once you'd paid you were allowed to collect your book.

These days you go in, go to the subject area and pay for your book on plastic. Somehow, the challenge of shopping at Foyles has gone...


Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 10:18 AM:

I kind of miss the old mediocre bookstores--independents and small chains such as Bookmasters--that were OK places to shop back when lots of good stuff was available in mass-market pb.

I really miss the 8th Street Bookstore, my archetype of the Great Independent Bookstore. (I imagine it grows from year to year as the distance one walked to school is supposed to.) I wouldn't be surprised if the WTC Borders had as good a stock.

I must admit that for almost 40 years I've been buying books from England (originally Blackwell's, now amazon.co.uk) when they weren't available at all in the US or available only in more expensive formats. (My trade pb copy of _Lost in a Good Book_ should arrive any day now.) I also liked it when US bookstores smuggled them in, as 8th Street, Classic, and Bookbranch often did.

Oh, and having visited Coliseum Books too infrequently to ever witness violence, let alone being involved in it, I am tempted to miss it.

Fraser Sherman ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 10:44 AM:

Let's not forget used book stores in all this. I have three in my town with good SF sections and I'm able to find stuff there that's way more obscure than anything I can get at chains or the one or two local stores.

Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 12:07 PM:

Seeing comments about the helpfulness of the staff drives home to me how differently people shop. The only time I talk to store employees is when I need to check out; I'd never go there for recommendations, or ask them for help finding a book I couldn't quite remember.

As long as they can take my money efficiently (and most can), the service is good in my book.

Rich ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 12:14 PM:

People have commented on service and this is an area where chains often have doen well, if only because they have service desks staffed with people who have a reasonable set of social skills and know how to use their computers.

Many books stores, esp. used book places tend to have staff who love books or reading, but aren't interested in people (kindof like the people who staff help desks in computer centers) and are luddites when it comes to the store computer (if they have one). If you're a regular or share their passion for some obscure writer or genre, you get great service. Otherwise, they tend to be off putting or unhelpful.

OTOH, the best indie genre stores have people who actually know womething about books and have some social skills and this usually puts them above any of the major chains.

Lloyd Burchill ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 03:55 PM:

In Canada the image of the chain booksellers got badly tarnished a couple of years ago. When Chapters and Indigo were merging, Chapters improved its balance sheet by greatly increasing its returns of stock, leaving many publishers with large unplanned debts.

Here's a story on this topic from last May:

Alter S. Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 04:09 PM:

What I look for in bookstores isn't the quality of the staff, or the avaliability of new or obscure releases. It's large quantities of extremely cheap books.

And, in this, the large chains have failed me. My favorite bookstore in the eighties was the Barnes and Noble on 5th Avenue and, um, 18th, I think. There used to be whole bookcases downstairs filled with 69 cent books (75 cents after tax). I'd spend fourty, fifty dollars there, whenever I got up enough funds for a trip.

The Barnes and Noble across the street still sells used textbooks, I think, not having been there in a while. But used books don't seem to be a high enough margin business to justify Manhattan rents.

In general, the big chains aren't really interested in bottom feeders like me. Neither are the independents, of course, but most used book stores that I've seen tend to have a rack or two of extremely cheap books. The better independent bookstores tend to be somewhat worse in that regard, as they tend to sort out any books that I might want, and sell them for more than minimum prices.

Currently, the only good source that I've got for books in my ideal price range are library book sales, but since I'm only in the states for occasional visits, I can't really count on hitting those.

It's sad, really. The next thing you know, I'll be buying new books, and actually, you know, supporting authors I like.

catie ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 04:09 PM:

Bryant says, "Future Fantasy went under, speaking of Silicon Valley, but I blame that on the general dot-com collapse."

Me, I blame it on the stupid, *stupid* hours that Future Fantasy kept. I could never get there when they were open because I worked in the City and commuting got me back to Palo Alto after business hours. I suspect similar problems with a lot of people who worked long hours during the height of the dot-com industries.

I grant you they kept fairly normal business hours, closing at 6pm and being closed on Sundays (I believe), but those just aren't good hours for people who have jobs and want to buy books at your specialized bookstore.

(I'm still bitter about it closing, apparently. Ahem.)

Michael Rawdon ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 04:58 PM:

Patrick suggests I expand on my opinion that, "the mechanism for delivering product to consumers is hardly less important than what product gets delivered."

Obviously, the fundamental principle here is that if people can't get hold of a book, or don't know it exists, then they won't read it. In some cases, if people can't examine a book first, or learn what other people think of a book, then they'll be less inclined to buy it.

In other words, the delivery mechanism affects both the availability of the product, and one's ability to research the product. (Example: The chain Hear Music has seemingly had some success in the music space by focusing on the latter characteristic. I have one friend who buys most of his music from them because he goes in, listens to several interesting-looking items, and then buys a few that he likes.)

Having the retail end of the industry vastly dominated by three outlets (Borders, B&N and Amazon) potentially diminishes the ability of some books to get to their intended audiences, if all three outlets decide (separately, or in collusion) to exclude all books which don't draw (or which they don't think will draw) a certain level of sales.

This happens in comics retail right now: Some of my favorite comics I never see on retail shelves because the retailers don't order them. (My retailer order a single copy of each of them specifically for me, and I find out about them through the Previews catalog from the distributor. But I'm not your average comics consumer.) Granted these are small-press comics, but without getting some retail visibility, their chance of becoming even medium-press comics is very small.

The Internet and retailers/resellers/direct-from-the-publisher sales throw an interesting twist on this, which I don't fully understand (and I doubt anyone else does, either).

For example, I have confidence that the folks who run Amazon will continue to try to stock everything in creation they can find out about themselves, and their system of providing information about their products is pretty good (IMO). I don't, however, have confidence that they'll continue to be this way 50 years from now. Especially if most of their competition evaporates.

The Internet is only as useful as one's ability to get onto it, of course. Not to mention that buying books on-line often incurs a shipping charge (sure, Amazon has free shipping for qualifying orders now... but what about 20 years from now?).

To sum up (since I've found myself digressing a great deal while writing this), my fear is that concentrating too much power into a few outlets will lead to those outlets excluding swaths of material from their stocks, meaning that I can't even find out if it exists, or whether I'd like it. And even if I can, maybe not enough other people can for the authors of those works (or even the publishers?) to make a career out of it.

Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 05:25 PM:

Foyles improved because old Mrs Foyle did indeed hand it over to her son -- she died. So all the things that would only happen over her dead body, like databases and stock control, are happening. It's still a much less good bookshop than Oxford Street Borders, though; and I'm not convinced it's any better than Cheshire Oaks Retail Park Borders, for that matter.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 08:01 PM:

This discussion confirms my general suspicion that where we think of ourselves as living is always about 10 years in the past. It's been a long time since I found out about great new books by prowling around in independent bookstores. Distribution in America has gotten too efficient so that shopping, as a passtime, is just not what it was. Go into any kind of store anywhere in the US and try to find something you are really interested in that you haven't seen before. That used to be one of my great pleasures 15 and 20 years ago. But that's over. Not just in books, but in most massproduced items. It's not just that great bookstores are drying up, but great stores in general. Now this kind of shopping is much easier to do on the Internet.

Part of this process has been the distribution system telling the owners of the means of production what it wants to see. What we perceive as the pain of the demise of great stores is also the homogenization of production. Certainly, many more niche products are being produced (literary and otherwise), but the pleasure of pure uncorrupted eccentricity is being lost.

(I know I'm being way abstract here, but I've had a bad day in very concrete ways involving tooth extractions at the pediatric dentist, so the eccentric joy of abstraction is a great solace.)

I used to _love_ shopping in stores. But the kind of shopping I used to do is over, historically.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 08:04 PM:

Allow me to register my admiration for that very sharp set of observations. That's about a dozen observations I need to think about at least overnight.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 10:12 PM:

Why I love wire racks, and love chains even more:

I grew up in Mesa, Arizona, which back then was not a very big place. Main Street was the main street. On it were the five-and-dime store, the men's clothing store where all the departing missionaries bought their suits, the stationery and office supply store, two hotly competitive drugstores across the street from each other, the movie theater, the florist, the boots & western wear shop, and so forth. Tough noogies if you wanted something they didn't have.

Here's the part I have trouble getting across to people from places like Boston: We had no bookstores. It's not that we didn't have any good bookstores. We had no bookstores, period. There was a small high-tone bookstore in the central business district of Phoenix, but it was bitty and understocked, and it mostly sold dull-looking hardcovers. And in Tempe, next to the ASU campus, there was Hill's Books & Records. It looked more impressive if you were book-deprived. We were. Patrick and I both spent some intoxicating hours there as kids. We might have met ten years earlier if we'd had eyes for anything but the books.

Hill's was a long bike ride from my house, along what had until recently been a rural road but now carried increasingly heavy commuter traffic. My parents would've had a fit if I'd told them where I was going. I vividly remember bicycling all the way to Hill's in the middle of an Arizona summer day, 105-110 F., because I knew they had the latest Zelazny novel.

It's possible that the next closest bookstores, depending on your direction of travel, were in Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Tucson, and Los Angeles.

Aside from that, all we had were the wire racks. Every drugstore and discount store and grocery and corner convenience store had them. You could never be sure what was going to turn up where, so you checked them all: Here a copy of the latest Delany, there this month's issue of Amazing. There was indeed a sense of adventure to it, which IMO is a way of saying that distribution was exceedingly spotty. Still, it was better than nothing.

(An unknown bit of history: A relatively small number of guys built the wire rack distribution system. I got into publishing just in time to overlap with guys like Ralph Arnote and Ian Ballantine. If I had ever tried to tell them how much they'd meant to me, how they'd changed my life, I would have become completely incoherent. They built the world I lived in, and I remain deeply grateful for that.)

Then, when I was in junior high, our first enclosed shopping mall got built just a few blocks from where I lived. (Yes, that one, Greg.) It was dizzyingly wonderful. When I examine my memories critically, it was a rather tatty little place, with the world's most ill-conceived central fountain, and having a grocery store anchoring one end never did work properly. And yet it was glorious, a festival of capitalism. If one clothing store didn't have what you wanted, you could go to another. And not only did five of its stores have wire racks and its plushest department store have a book department, but eventually it got A CHAIN BOOKSTORE! (Walden, not that it really matters.)

By modern standards that bookstore would be a negligible little thing, but I tell you: It was wonderful beyond description. (Come to think of it, Hill's Books & Records wasn't all that impressive either; except it was, and that's that.)

And before the wire racks? There was nothing. A newsstand or two, maybe, and our dinky little town library, and if you wanted more than that you could join the Book of the Month Club. Or you could visit New York. Or you could petition Interlibrary Loan.

So God save the chain stores. Great independent bookstores sound like a wonderful idea, but without the chains I would have spent my childhood and adolescence waiting for one to open.

Stephanie Zvan ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2003, 11:52 PM:

I think I must live in the best town for independent bookstores. Not that I've asked many of the store owners; this is strictly from a reader's perspective. Minneapolis and Saint Paul support two speculative fiction, two mystery, at least one children's, one highbrow eclectic, one socialist, several new age, assorted other specialty, and uncounted used bookstores (I'm still working on counting them). One of our spec fic stores actually moved to a larger location about the time Borders was entering the market and after B&N was already well established (but Neil Gaiman can probably do that to you).

I know of only two independent booksellers who have gone out of business since the chain boom started. One of them carried a large selection of business titles and a smaller selection of others. The chains were handily able to outcompete them in their specialty. I suspect the other suffered from poor location, because I was never actually able to find them until about a month after they closed.

We also had, until just over a year ago, one of the world's best resources for an independent store. Scott Imes worked at Uncle Hugo's, was Uncle Hugo's for a lot of people. He remembered people he saw once or twice a year, remembered what they'd read, what they liked and why they liked it. He remembered that they were behind in their reading because they were renovating their house. He never failed to ask what you were reading that was good and could always offer a suggestion for something to try next. And he was always just as helpful and polite to the fruitbats who couldn't distinguish fiction from reality.

On the other hand, you can go an hour or two north of the cities to the biggest resort town in the state and not find any bookstores. I'm with Teresa on being all for wire racks.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 01:39 AM:

I love bookstores, all of them, big, little, chain, indy, new, used. I've never waked into one without walking out with at least one book. Where I grew up, northeastern Oklahoma in the 50s and 60s, there weren't any bookstores, but my parents always made sure we got to the library. In fact Muskogee Oklahoma still doesn't have much in the way of bookstores though there's a small Hastings. (The first person who quotes a country and western song at me gets snarled at.) Tulsa, however, merely an hour's drive away has some wonderful chains. For years it had a great independent that only closed when the owner died. I make it a point to take my niece and nephew book shopping whenever I'm in town. They don't appreciate it, but they have heaven on earth compared to our childhood. And it's mostly chain stores. Hmm, I had a point when I started this but I seem to have lost it. Bookstores good.


Minty ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 03:16 AM:

I have the distinct impression that even attempting to argue for indys is an exercise in futility equal to trying to get copies of Dick Cheney's ECG strips but I think there's a point here that's worth expanding on.
Take a look at the Booksense Top 50 as compared to the best seller section in the B&N, you'll see some distinct differences that I believe point to the sort of concern that Mr. Rawdon expressed. The number 2 book on the most recent Booksense was "Population 485" a really nifty collection of essays by a rural Wisconsin writer/poet/paramedic. It's one of the best narratives on the dynamics of life (and death) in a small town that I've ever read. There's nothing maudlin or artificial about it but at the same time it celebrates humanity in a way that few books I've read recently have managed. As you can see, I really liked the book and I was tickled to see it rated so high on Booksense.
That same book, however, is nowhere to be seen in the best seller section of B&N or on the mainstean best seller lists. Can't crack the Coulter barrier I suppose. I'm sure it's featured on the big box shelves in the upper midwest but further south, no.
My point is that it's indys that have been bolstering this grand little book and others like it and without those stores it would not be getting the exposure that I (and apparently alot of other indy employees too) believe that it deserves. And I fear that without us, alot of other interesting, out of the norm, and unbranded books will fall through the cracks and will eventually not be published at all. And what is availible will grow ever more processed, bland, and unchallenging. The quality of the book will become less important than it's capacity to be successfully marketed and it's connection to a slick media tie-in.
Nothing but "O'Reilly: the Fluff and Fold Zone" and Coulter's latest "I know you are but what am I?" as far as the eye can see.
(Ok, probably not that bad, but bad enough)

I know the big boxes are not going away, that's reality. But I don't believe indy's have to die for more books to be available to all. Great independent bookstores -are- a great idea. We don't pretend to be able to put a B&N sized box in every town of 10K or more, but should we all just curl up and die because we can't?

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 08:10 AM:

...all we had were the wire racks. Every drugstore and discount store and grocery and corner convenience store had them...a copy of the latest Delany...

Wow, that brings back memories. I grew up in Okemos, Michigan, which had its own bookstores, and was within bikeshot of the book-paradise known as East Lansing.

BUT I got my first copy of Dhalgren because my mother bought it from a wire rack at the checkout counter of (I kid you not) Meijer Thrifty Acres (a big grocery store, for those of you who are Wmpy Zn Chllngd). I found it on my bed when I got home from school. (I think I was 16 or so.)

I think she was trying to open communication in some way.

I never would have heard of Delany had this not happened. The Meridian Mall didn't have that book, and it was years before I saw any other Delany novels. I thank some anonymous rack-jobber for putting it there.

And when I finally met Delany at NorEascon II, I was so nervous that, well, "babbled like Dorkfan" goes without saying, but I also kept playing with my long blond hair and biting my nails to the quick.

I swear I didn't do it on purpose.

Elihu Sussman ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 08:58 AM:

this discussion about the chains vs the independents is interesting but seems to be missing one major point. Recently a grand old restaurant called Ratner's closed on the lower east side of Manhattan. In an article in the Times one "customer" bemoaned its demise. the owner was quoted as asking when the customer had last had a meal there. The reply--2 maybe 3 years ago. The point is the if the independents are not surviving it must be be because the customers don't perceive them as providing a service or product they need or want. If you don't patronize the store they ain't gonna stay in business

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 10:08 AM:

Teresa's point is well taken. I think from a high-school to college level age sense of discovery for a reader, yes, we certainly had it great here in Boston.

But I liked Teresa's portrait of Arizona, partially because, it's not a whole lot different from what it was like in Milton (a Boston suburb) when I grew up. There was no book store in East Milton Square. There was no book store in Milton, period. My first book store discovery, around 1973, was a small chain outlet (perhaps Paperback Booksmith) inside Quincy Center Station which I could get to by bus. The Ballantine Tolkien books had just switched from the Barbara Bain covers (remember that mural poster?) to Tolkien's own illustrations--for $1.25. And then there were wire racks at Woolworth's not far from there, but I don't remember them carrying anything I liked other than Alistair MacLean. My first book buying experience on my own was every summer in Scituate, tagging along with my mother to Hanover Mall, so I could get the next James Blish Star Trek adaptation at--Paperback Booksmith, the chain. (Okay, I backed into SF via Star Trek; I apologize).

Yeah, once you discover Harvard Square, you definitely get spoiled--but Teresa's experience struck me as not too far different from mine.

When the huge Barnes and Noble in Braintree opened in 1994, I applied my snob test, just to see how the chain would stack up against Harvard Book Store in terms of selection. I was surprised to find a book on medieval philosophy by Etienne Gilson, a shelf of Jacques Derrida, and a few other items I was forced to read at college that I thought would only be of interest to browsers in Harvard Square. There they were...in Braintree???!

Chains are cool. (But I still miss Science Fantasy Book store and I still miss the Wursthause...bad as the food could be).

CMuncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 01:05 PM:

Don't worry Mary Kay, my mom's family is from Bartlesville and we drove through Muskogee on the way . . . I always hated that song.

And B'ville was no better bookwise until a mall opened up on the edge of town and they got a small chain bookstore. Otherwise -- wire racks and the library (which, thankfully, did a decent job of buying SF).

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 01:14 PM:

The existence of places like Teresa describes was what made the book clubs a huge cultural force. The book clubs as they exist today are a pale shadow of what they were when I first set foot in a Manhattan publishing office (1985). It seems possible to me that the book store chians have had a much larger impact on the book clubs than they have on the independents. Book Clubs were how intellectuals outside major metropolitan areas tended to get their reading.

(I grew up in Seattle, so I had it good growing up, bookwise. As a teenager, I had a University Bookstore credit card, for God's sake! I used to go camp there. And I had the University District to mispend my youth in.)

But even the University District utopia I found there was a comparatively recent development -- it grew there in the '60s. I'm told that when my family moved to Seattle in 1964, there were only two real restaurants in the whole place (I know one of them was Candlis, and the second seems to me to be both the restaurant in the Spaceneedle and also Ivar's Captain's table, so somthing's wrong with the math of memory.)

Regarding the lost leases in book districts in places like Manhattan, this has to do with intellectual culture's role in gentrification. There was a wonderfully appaling article in New York Magazine that I read in Peter's dentist's office called "Preschool Confidential" in which the author hypothesizes that intellectual culture makes great preschools which become highly desirable and are then destroyed by people of means who try to buy what they desire. (He was much more tactful than that, but I think that's what he was getting at.) Those same forces are at work not only in book store real estate but also in publishing houses themselves.

(Aphorism fairs me here. There ought to be one, but I can't quite find it.)

jennie ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 01:18 PM:

Gee, I _thought_ living in Leamington, Ontario (the Tomato Capital of Canada, for those who have somehow missed hearing of this agricultural mecca), had given me a boundless appreciation of Toronto, and its bookstores, but this thread has pushed the boundaries back, still further.

Yes there are Chapters and Indigo outlets (big cafe9-bookstore chains). There are also three Book Cities (a small local chain, with good discounted books, and a great selection of history, SF, and art books), and scores of independant, specialist bookstores. I can think of two gay bookstores, one SF, two design bookstores, two art bookstores, on womens' bookstore, one psychology bookstore, two Spanish bookstores, one French one, several Childrens' bookstores, several scholarly and antiquarian ones,and a couple of non-specialist, just plain good browsing bookstores, like Nicholas Hoare. I haven't mentioned the good used bookstores. And Toronto is by no means the college town that Boston is. It's nearly impossible for me to walk along Harbord Street without spending a lot of money, and increasing the strain on my already inadequate bookshelves.

I am truly blessed.

Yes, Chapters' /Indigo are there. They're everywhere. They've certainly replaced a lot of the plain-everything bookstores, but y'know the only one of these that I miss is Britnell's, which apparently closed for reasons other than sqeeze. I don't used the chains. I can't find anything to buy at there -- honest! I've accumulated $75 in gift certificates, and am going to have to spend it all on calendars, and dictionaries! The Chapters near me is staffed by people who in Rich's terms "know something about books" (like which way to face them, apparently), and have some social skills (I know because I listened to three of them socialize amongst themselves for ten minutes or so, while I waited to see whether one of them could help me find Elizabeth Barber's _Prehistoric Textiles_. She couldn't. She couldn't find anything else by Elizabeth Barber either, or Janet Arnolds _Patterns of Fashion_. Having cleverly deduced that I'm interested in cloth, she referred me to their "Fashion" section -- three shelves of books on things like blue jeans, Armani, and high-heeled shoes. But I digress.

Thing is, that I know that Toronto's wonderful, at least in terms of bookstores. In Leamington, there was no bookstore. None. There was an alleged bookstore, independant, sure. It sold magazines, bibles, romances, and a few Franklin kids' books. These guys sure weren't pushing any small press publications. There was a small public library (my salvation). The wire racks had romances. I couldn't buy books on-line because I had no computer, constrained 'net access at the public library, and no credit card. I still can't buy books online, because I have no credit card.

As an aside, some of the girls who helped with the tomato harvest had never read a story that didn't first appear in the Bible. This explains a certain amount about the selection in the alleged bookstore.

Fortunately, I was able to visit Toronto, once in the three months, to acquire new teaching tools, and a book fix. Fortunately, I didn't have a lot of time to read, so I didn't have time to exhaust the resources of the local library. But I would have given a lot to be able to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon (my half-day off whee!) at a Chapters' or Indigo, sipping an overpriced coffee-drink, and perusing books on blue-jeans.

My point? None really, other than to add my voice to the"books are good; access to books is good; not having access to books is sad" chorus, and to recommend Toronto as a good place to buy books.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 01:29 PM:

* Um, by "whole place," I mean Greater Seattle, not the U District.

Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 01:30 PM:

In the "synchronicity" department, a less populous version of this same discussion is posted over at bookslut right now. It's cattier than the Electrolite version, and fairly Texas-specific, but it was sort of amusing.

Wendy Shaffer ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 02:11 PM:

This thread is bringing back all kinds of memories about how I used to buy books as a kid. From the ages of 9 to 16, I lived in a suburb of Orlando, FL. Orlando isn't exactly the boondocks, so I'm sure there must have been bookstores somewhere, but for most of that time, I used to buy my books either at the grocery store or the Waldenbooks at the mall. The grocery store's entire SF selection consisted of Star Trek books, Frank Herbert, and Jack L. Chalker. I read a lot of Frank Herbert.

Then a BookStop opened not far away. I remember going there and being completely stunned -- not only did they carry lots of books I never knew existed, they carried whole categories of books I never knew existed. The most thrilling discovery was finding F&SF and Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine on their newstand. I'd heard about the SF magazines, but never actually seen a copy before.

So, now I live in Berkeley, and I buy most of my books at independent stores, but it's hard for me to think of the chains as totally evil.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 02:12 PM:

Small correction to John Farrell: The artist who painted the original Ballantine LotR "mural" covers was named Barbara Remington, not Barbara Bain.

"Minty" has "the distinct impression that even attempting to argue for indys is an exercise in futility," but this discussion hasn't been about arguing "against" them.

I certainly recognize that there are books of special merit that owe their survival to attention paid them by independent bookstores, or by collective efforts such as Booksense. What needs to be pointed out is that, outside a very small number of science fiction and fantasy specialty stores, SF and fantasy books of significant literary quality rarely get any attention at all from the mid-sized "quality" literary independent bookstores of the world. To use an example I've used before: Terry Bisson is a fabulous, magical, evocative writer with an absolutely unique voice. He is as sharp about issues of race, and class, and modern America, as any number of lionized mainstream writers. He's been honored with all of the SF and fantasy fields' major awards. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. All this being the case, you would think the small independent bookstores of Brooklyn, New York would stock his work, right? That, on publication of a new book from him, the two independents on Park Slope's Seventh Avenue, and the couple of independents over in Brooklyn Heights, would highlight this local author, as they do other Brooklyn authors? He's published in hardcover and trade paperback by a reasonably major publisher, and his books sell well enough.

You'd think that. But you'd be wrong. Because Terry Bisson is a science fiction and fantasy writer. Yes, those independents stock science fiction. Back behind the hip literary titles, they all have desultory, poorly-chosen SF sections full of routine genre stuff. Where can you find Terry Bisson's books? Where are they displayed along with the works of other local, Brooklyn, literati? That's right: at the Barnes and Noble on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

So pardon me for having some problem with the proposition that the independents are what stand between us and a hellish monoculture. For those of us who have spent our lives trying to cultivate intelligence and diversity in SF and fantasy, it's hard to regard the typical urban small literary "independent bookstore" as an ally. They haven't been there for us.

Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 02:31 PM:
Regarding the lost leases in book districts in places like Manhattan, this has to do with intellectual culture's role in gentrification. .. (Aphorism fails me here. There ought to be one, but I can't quite find it.)

I don't have an aphorism, either, but maybe we could call the phenomenon the Tragedy of the Uncommon.

And although I understand (I think) the point about preschools, I'm not quite sure I get the connection to NYC real estate prices. The high prices can't all be due to intellectual culture, can they? (That's an honest question, not sarcasm, by the way - I really have little idea.)

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 02:31 PM:

It's cattier than the Electrolite version...

Hmm. Perhaps they have no disemvowelization law to keep them civil!

Just kidding. :-)

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 02:34 PM:

I don't have an aphorism, either, but maybe we could call the phenomenon the Tragedy of the Uncommon.

"Who praise the Rare, but do not buy it
Leave us all with blander diet."

More a Grook than an aphorism, I guess. Just giving it a try.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 02:46 PM:

>high prices can't all be due to intellectual culture, can they?

Sorry. My sloppiness comes from typing while breastfeeding baby Elizabeth.

I realized after the fact that I had overemphasized that element. But what I was getting at there was that intellectual culture sometimes creates the aura of desirability. And so (hypothetically) the book district is replaced with upscale boutiques or some such which can pay higher rent. The really big NYC example of that is SoHo and Greenwich Village in which the subcultures which create desire have to move elsewhere when rents go up.

Collesium's retail location was desirable for other reasons. But that area near the Strand where there used to be a lot of bookstores was, I think, at least in part a victim of its own ambiance.

Another thing mangled by mommy multitasking: what I meant to write was "Aphorism _fails_ me here."

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 02:52 PM:

Small correction to John Farrell: The artist who painted the original Ballantine LotR "mural" covers was named Barbara Remington, not Barbara Bain.

Patrick's right. Oh my God: Barbara Bain was the wife of Martin Landau in Space 1999 (I swear I never watched it! Really!) and Mission Impossible and real life.

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 04:05 PM:

Books & Co. was an Upper East Side bookstore whose demise at the hands of the krool heartless chains got a book of its very own. Somewhere in Chip Delany's _1984_ (a book that could use an index) is a discussion of the failed efforts to get it to stock his sf books.

Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 04:52 PM:
I realized after the fact that I had overemphasized that element. But what I was getting at there was that intellectual culture sometimes creates the aura of desirability. And so (hypothetically) the book district is replaced with upscale boutiques or some such which can pay higher rent.

I'll buy that to an extent. I'd tend to think of the subculture, or more accurately aspect of culture, that's driving prices up as the hip, fashionable subculture. This definitely has some intersections with the intellectual subculture but I don't see them as the same (if they are I definitely need to start dressing better).

What I think might be a better description of the point (at least, it parallels the preschool example) is that people in one subculture (hip and fashionable, or at least people who think of themselves that way) latch on to another subculture (intellectuals, artists) because it attracts them, and end up hurting it by driving up prices, emphasizing the superficial aspects of it, etc. So intellectual culture may not have really done anything (assuming that it makes sense to say a culture "does something") except be attractive to people with too much money.

Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 05:21 PM:

If I had to hazard an unenlightened guess, I'd say that this is what happened to Bakka (mentioned way upthread), Toronto's good SF bookstore. It used to be located on trendy Queen St., and had been, as I understand it, since long before Queen St. was trendy, back when Queen St. was cool, and rents were cheap. With the trendification of Queen St., most, if not all, of the small retailers who helped to make it cool have moved off Queen St., as larger retailers, who can afford higher rents, and larger storefronts make the smaller, cooler, but less wealthy independants less desireable to landlords. Queen St., east of Spadina, is no longer a cool place to shop, although I still frequent a couple of the stores in that area.

Bakka moved closer to my old digs, and didn't close, and one can still find many wonderful things there, along with knowledgeable staff, and the occaisional friend, so I wasn't too displeased by the move. And I don't remember when Queen St. was *really* cool (I suspect that by the time I was allowed to go downtown, trendification was well underway), so I don't really miss it.

Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 06:54 PM:

I have such a wildly divergent view of Borders...

In the early '90s, during a visit to Pittsburgh, Jim discovered Borders (#9). We'd visited the one in Ann Arbor years before, but weren't aware that it had become a chain. He was very enthused about it, and, about a year later, when one opened in Framingham, we were very regular customers.

A few years later, we were living in Pittsburgh and I wound up getting a job at Borders #9. I had to take a test consisting of some 50 questions on
books before I was hired. To be hired to work as a bookseller, you had to show you understood books. It was an interesting year - while the pay was so-so and the hours could be horrible, it was enjoyable to be "an expert," and to get to know a certain section (Computers, in my case) really, really well. Customer service was considered important. I left after a year, but I frequently returned as a customer.

Over the last few years, I'd noticed Borders going down hill. Clerks didn't seem to know books as well and the stores were sloppy. When I was underemployed in late '01, I was hired back by the local Borders as a part-timer. It was completely
different. Very few people were full-timers, and the book-shelving was handled by an overnight crew.
So there were no experts on any one area. The store was chronically understaffed.

I understand that the margins are tight and that bookstores are a business. However, selling books isn't like selling towels - if you're a superstore, you shouldn't be just selling number of titles, you should be selling serivce.

Borders isn't so much fun to go to as a customer anymore (I'm no longer an employee as I have a fulltime job); I do love to browse bookstores, but these days I tend to rely on Amazon.

Nathan Bardsley ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 06:54 PM:

I went out to buy comics and books today at lunch and you know what? The independant specialty stores are even today still chasing customers away. A small sign ("Reserve your signed copy today!") is in front of the new hardcover by Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm, so I ask if the author is coming in for a signing. The response is "I don't know, maybe, I think they were mailed from somewhere else," and then immediately turning away to shuffle papers.

I would =love= to spend my $100+/month book money at an =good= independant bookstore, but there's not one here in San Diego that gives me a reason too. The rare occasion of instant gratification (Kathryn Cramer's point about shopping above is dead on.) is not worth the lack of knowledge, lack of reccomendations, full retail prices, poor stock selection, and impersonal interaction.

In comparision, books from Amazon are 30% off, no sales tax, no shipping, have Edward Whittenmore & Kelly Link in stock (the local sf/mystery store doesn't even bother to stock those two), and actually makes reccomendations that are new and interesting to me.

Even Amazon.co.uk is easier to deal with than Andromeda.co.uk.

If I were to find a new store, or move to a different city I'd give the independent store more than a few visits, I'll gladly pay more to support them if they're good to me; but these days they need to =earn= my business not get it by default.

Based on experiences like this I would much rather get new and interesting books from Amazon, and blow off the specialty store which isn't..

Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 07:03 PM:

What the Bookslut version of this discussion doesn't talk about is the closure last year of Adventures in Crime & Space, Austin's mystery/SF bookstore. I used to hit it and Bookpeople--which I like--every time I went to Austin.

(As a straight feminist woman, I completely agree about Bookwoman, too. I won't shop where my husband isn't welcome. Some of us straight feminists are more loyal to the people we sleep with than the people we share public bathrooms with.)

Houston has a couple of snooty independent bookstores that I don't care for, as they stock too much "literature" and not enough "stuff I read" (history, SF, social sciences of various types). Future Visions, our SF/fantasy bookstore, went out of business years ago. The comics-gaming shops here that I'm acquainted with have never carried a great selection of books. (Disclosure: I worked for one of them while in grad school, which may color my opinions.)

Houston does have a buttload of B&N and Borders (2 Borders, and probably half a dozen B&Ns), plus a B&N-owned Bookstop, which suffers on size. Bookstop was a regional chain before B&N bought it. The one in Houston is housed in an old movie theater, and I love to go there, as I have since well before B&N bought it. For used we have several Half-Price Books, a great regional chain. I'm a bit burned out on used books, so I don't shop there as much as I used to, but you find the most amazing things there.

Houston's not really a book town, and I'm a book ho--I'll buy from the pokiest little bookstore or the biggest chain or Amazon. The instructive comparison to me is comparing the lack of good indy bookstores in Houston to the number of good independent record shops, which is decreasing (Record Rack went out of business recently, and Soundwaves closed its outer Westheimer location) but is still greater than that of the indy bookstores.

Dirk Deppey ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 07:25 PM:

Here's a contrarian perspective you might find interesting: I work for Fantagraphics Books, which specializes in independent comic books and graphic novels. Up until recently such works as those we publish have existed in their own network of independent specialty outlets, a ghetto that we're trying like crazy to escape.

If you've ever seen the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, you've seen a pretty accurate picture of the average comic book store in operation. They're parochial, badly-run, and actively antagonistic to the kind of adult-minded books sold by the company for which I work. We've been a sort of uninvited guest in the comics shops from the beginning; maybe half of them carry non-superhero works to begin with, and the ones that do often don't carry very many. Curiously enough, comics distribution has been contracting for twenty years now, which I strongly suspect is intimately related to the problems I outline above.

Two years ago, we signed with W.W. Norton to distribute our works to bookstores, and within six months we were selling more graphic novels and book collections to chain and independent bookstores than we were to the network of shops ostensibly devoted to the kind of works we publish. It isn't a perfect fit by any means -- I've seen Chris Ware and Joe Sacco routinely shelves with Spider-Man collections -- but compared to what we had before, it's been nothing less than a complete paradigm shift (apologies for the trendy jargon, but it's the only phrase that fits).

The support we've gotten from independent bookstores has been great, of course; the Seattle-area shops Jack Womack mentioned above all carry and support our books. Our biggest saving grace, however, has been the big chains. I'm curious -- is there anyone else here who works in small-press publishing? There's been a lot of discussion here about indies vs. chains from a reader's point of view; how about publishing? Has the rise of the chain bookstores been a boon to sales, or have your books gotten lost in the shuffle?

unfutz ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 10:54 PM:

Life is passing me by -- when did the Science Fiction Shop close?

On the one hand, it does seem odd that there's no specialty SF store in Manhattan (of all places -- and Forbidden Planet doesn't count since they moved and reduce their book stock to nothing); but on the other hand, there's really been so little need for me to shop at one for a while now, since the three Barnes & Nobles close to me (6th and 22nd, 5th and 18th, and Union Square) have pretty darn good SF stocks and I can order anything I can't find there from Half.com, SFBC, Amazon, Books-a-Million, BN or any number of other online retailers.

As a kid growing up in Westchester, I would have died for that kind of wasy access to SF.

I, too, love small bookstores, they're great to browse in and for serendipitous finds, so I'm always sure to seek them out whenever I'm out of town, but it's hard to make the argument that the SF buyer is in worse shape now than he or she was in, say, 15 years ago, before the explosion of the big chains or the rise of Internet retailing.

Chip Hitchcock ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 11:28 PM:

The comments on the book situation in Harvard Square dovetail with Katherine's observations about culture outpricing what it values. I don't remember McIntyre & Moore being in Harvard Square (surprising considering I remember Science Fantasy before it moved over the Wursthaus) but its current location (Davis Square) is very much what Harvard Square was 30 years ago: multiple bookstores (I haven't seen anything as weird as Pangloss, but there are other used bookstores and a Buck-A-Book), food ranging from greasy through good-and-cheap to great, an emphasis on foot traffic (I wonder how much effect Boston-and-environs' being so compact has had on it being such a good book town), and a funky theater (that multiplexed but still has a main stage for live shows, unlike the one in Harvard Square) plus an assortment of smaller live-music venues. I haven't seen a really good icecream store there since Steve's closed (which is appalling, considering Steve's was one of the early epicenters of the serious icecream movement) while Harvard Square has Toscanini's, but for the rest of it Harvard is gradually turning into a yuppie mall (Tower Records is one thing, but some of the clothing chains just boggle me).

And I never expected this blog's comments to make me feel weird -- but I look at all these stories of people buying books and think about moving with a couple of boxes 6 years after college ... I guess I was extraordinarily lucky in libraries (Montgomery County, Northampton, Cambridge, MITSFS, and finally Boston right opposite where my chorus rehearsed) even by East Coast standards. (And if there had been any nonscientific jobs left or the area hadn't massively changed in the few World War II years I might have grown up near Santa Fe, my father having taught there for 22 years before being called up and assigned back to the coast he'd grown up near -- damfino what I would have done for books then.) Most of my first couple of standards of books came from Glen Cook and Marty Massoglia, buying used the books I'd borrowed 10-20 years before, and I still do most of my buying at conventions because I don't seem to have browsing time anywhere else while there's always
a few minutes here and there to wander through the dealers' room.

There's a frisson of pleasure from the mentions of carrying NESFA books being the mark of a good store. I can't give you hard numbers but I know we sell to stores ranging from small independents through Amazon (the thrill of hearing about the first $10,000 order, rapidly followed by the gulps at the thought of packing it...). But I suspect that the Amazon sales helped drive the expansion of the later 90's; the knowledge that many cases of books can go from fulfillment (even allowing for some returns) seems to make the club a lot more willing to publish almost any doorstop of a fondly-remembered author if there's somebody willing to put the beast together.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 01:26 AM:

Unfutz: The Science Fiction Shop merged with Village Comics around the time I came to New York (1992). The last time I was in Village Comics, it consisted of a single bookcase.

Village Comics, in turn, is a store so dingy it make The Android's Dungeon (the aforementioned comics shop in The Simpsons) look like Shakespeare & Co.

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 02:24 AM:

I grew up in the wilds of suburbia in San Jose. The local bookstore was a Waldenbooks, with a reasonable selection of SF, and clerks happy and willing to order other titles for me. Later there was a Crown and another smaller chain, both of which had reasonable selections, both of which went defunct. There was also a terribly short-lived (one year) independent bookstore with a fairly poor selection of everything, which I patronized mostly because it was on my way home from school.

I found better and prettier bookstores once I could drive, and those were independent, and also many examples of what I call the "Chainsmoker & Cat" bookstores.

My main trouble with the "Support your local independent bookseller!" cry is that some of them seem to be selling guilt and snob-appeal more than books, and if a book isn't carried by Ingrams, they're unwilling to order it--at least that was my experience in college with the Bookshop Santa Cruz. They also had this double-speak about "carrying books by local authors," which basically meant "books by local historians and literary stuff," not authors actually living in the area.

Contrast this with the Barnes and Noble up in San Francisco, that was not only willing to carry books from specialty presses, but actually hosted a live reading of stories from one of Tom Roche and M. Christian's erotica anthologies.

Tom and I also did a reading for a small independent lesbian bookstore in El Cerito, and I've done signings at gaming and specialty SF stores.

I think it comes down to what Jane said about the staff.

However, as a patron I have to say that Barnes and Noble and Borders have opened up what I can only call Palaces to the Book. They're clean, they're bright, they're airy, and they are so many levels of improvement over the Chainsmoker & Cat stores that I can't help but love them as a patron. And more often than not, they have very knowledgable salespeople too.

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 12:17 PM:

I was shaped by great bookstores. Most are dead.
I'm an Active Member of SFWA (as are Womack, Yolen, et al.) and MWA and NWU and other writers' groups -- because of LOTS OF GOOD BOOKS at home and in my neighborhood. My parents both worked in the book publishing business in New York City; that's thousands of freebies right there. We also lived in Brooklyn Heights, not far from Terry Carr, from Leo & Dianne Dillion, from Norman Mailer, from where Walt Whitman worked, from where Hart Crane lived, so the smell of books mingled with the carob trees and the East River. My best friend's parents, the late Sam and Sylvia Colton, owned and ran a fabulous used bookstore on Montague Street, which specialized in New York history, but was also crammed with science fiction back to stacks of 1930s Amazing Stories. Sam was a former dockworker who'd so self-educated from his books as to be offered, and decline, a professorship. I was in daily dialogue with the books there, and the people who bought and sold them. Alas, they were forced out by a landlord who wanted yet another boutique. But ever since, I have depended on quirky stores run by true book lovers, in Pasadena CA (I started at Caltech aged 16), in Yolen-territory (Amherst, MA), and in Seattle WA (2nd only to Boston in books sold per capita). 90% of those bookstores were killed, the last batch by Amazon, and B&N. In Pasadena, Planet Ten books was killed by the Redevelopment Agency, whose head told witnesses "I hate bookstores." One of Pasadena's over 700 restaurants is at that site. Love of books made mw who I am. I have filled my home with thousands of books, just as my parents did. So my 13-year-old son (yes, thirteen) is a professional writer earning straight A's at a local University. My web domain, magicdragon.com, has data on over 15,000 writers, editors, and fictional characters in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Detective, Westerns, and Poetry. Without bookstores, there are fewer writers. Gotta go read now. Bye!

Amanda Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 12:18 PM:

I have a little Catholic bookstore right around the corner that I'd love to support. But, alas, their new releases are 24 months old and they balk at special orders. When asked about the latest book from Ms. So-and-So at a major Catholic publishing house they claim ignorance.

Husband and I spend upwards of $250 a month on books. We usually wind up spending it at a Border's about an hour away. We'd love to spend it at a independent. They (the independents) can't even be bothered now to do any handselling. It's sad.

Michael Rawdon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 03:59 PM:

Amanda Smith writes: "We'd love to spend it at a independent. They (the independents) can't even be bothered now to do any handselling. It's sad."

Depends on the independent. Kepler's Books in the Bay Area is pretty good about ordering books for people, from what I've observed.

There's also Frugal Muse in Madison, WI, which is a primarily used bookstore but which would order books from distributors for you and even give you a discount on them, as I recall!

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 10:54 AM:

Amanda, Michael: I believe you have just recapitulated the entire discussion. Sometimes independent bookstores rock, sometimes they suck, and the times will depend on the particular measuring stick you place against them.

The same is true, incidentally, of chain stores.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 09:37 PM:

"Can't crack the Coulter barrier I suppose," says Minty. I wonder if that's anything like the "Michael Moore barrier." I also wonder what this means?

Mike G ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2003, 12:21 AM:

The bookstore I haunted in my youth in Wichita, KS was called Rector's. It was a GREAT place to go if you wanted a Louis L'Amour novel, a Mickey Spillane novel, or copies of Sex At Sexty. Literary fiction was confined to two shelves toward the back, and the same hardcover copies of things like Tolkien sat there for years at a time.

I have some nostalgia for the atmosphere, just as seeing a Bantam paperback novelization of Earthquake brings my youth back to me, but that doesn't mean things aren't obviously better now.

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2003, 10:13 AM:

My favorite bookstore as enemy story: In 1967, the guy who owned Moe's tried to open a used bookstore in Haight-Ashbury, which then had no bookstores. The Zoning Commission turned him down because it would attract undesirables, so he opened a drug-paraphernalia store instead.

cindy ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2003, 01:09 AM:

Someone linked me to this discussion; love some of those indie stories! I agree with several who said that they grew up with few bookstore options. We had Waldens and Daltons, and the library; the Annual VNS Booksale, and a couple of used stores in downtown Phoenix. Not much of a selection (tho our library was wonderful, in fact I probably learned to read there). It wasn't till I got to college that I discovered really good indies and used stores. And then, oh the thrill when Bookstar opened near our apartments, in walking distance! We waited with great anticipation, and on opening day, I was estatic to find an entire section of History and one of Sci Fi, not just one or two shelves for each. I do think the chains have provided a valuable opportunity for more people to discover books who previously had limited options. That being said, I still love and support the indies I go to now (Changing Hands and Bookmans in Phoenix, Book Stop and Antigone's in Tucson), and am saddened by the demise of many indies. I am esp saddened when I go to a place like London, and see three B/N within a mile from each other, in an area known for used bookstores.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2003, 04:38 PM:

Hey, I remember the annual Visiting Nurses' booksale! Haven't thought about that in years.

I'll bet Cindy remember's Al's Books and Records.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 01:54 PM:

Further information, way down here at the bottom of the discussion . . .

NYTimes today has a story on a surviving G/L/B/T independent bookstore Creative Visions, that touches a little on the topics of this discussion. Quoting from the owner, Vincent Migliore:

"I've never believed that the demise of A Different Light, and now the demise of Oscar Wilde, was a case of the gay community not supporting its bookstores," he says. "I don't think it's good to say to your customers, `It's your fault that we're sinking.' " He estimates that Creative Visions has increased its retail sales incrementally for the last six years and did close to $800,000 in sales in 2002 97 he was hoping to hit the million-dollar mark, but a flat holiday season ruined that goal. Still, his store is not sinking.

and to another point:

Even straight people, he says, can find what they're looking for: the pet section includes "Dr. Kidd's Guide to Herbal Dog Care" and "Dogs for Dummies." Need David Kaufman's biography of Charles Ludlum, originator of the Ridiculous Theater Company? Both copies sold out, but when the author came in and complained, Mr. Migliore reordered. Around here, the customer and the author are king.

Sumana ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 10:35 PM:

I work at Cody's Books in Berkeley, but don't represent the company in my opinions. I've heard horror stories about working at B&N, but have to reserve opinion on work conditions at Borders, as I've not the info.

What I'm hearing is that people want good service, and they won't put up with bad service to pursue their ideals of supporting heterogeneous marketplaces. I know that I try to provide good customer service, and am frustrated when my colleagues don't, and that even the Name independents (Cody's, Powell's, Strand, etc.) are the underdogs in this fight.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2003, 07:32 AM:

Good service--and selection, I'd say.

Cody's certainly has both. If thye US had two dozen Cody'ses, bookselling would be in great shape.