January 17, 2002

HELLO, IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?


Commentary by Cherie Jung

Every year, usually in December, I go through my calendar and transfer important dates to a new calendar for the next year. I also go through my address book and see if I need to update anything. Year before last, I noticed that my address book had become rather untidy. In almost every letter category, I had scratched out names and addresses, marked "moved" with a new address underneath or "dead" with no new address listed. It was a bit eerie to discover so many "dead" notations. The past year or two had seen quite a number of lost friends and relatives. The task of re-entering the valid addresses into another book seemed daunting so I postponed it. Now this year I'm forced to notice another ugly trend. Nearly all of the independent bookstore addresses I've collected over the years are crossed out.

I'm not going to get into a debate on how evil the big superstores are or how they get perks the smaller independent bookstores don't. We can spend hours railing against the system, but when all is said, it's still the system that is currently in place and there is very little we can do about that. What I'm wondering is what can we do about the diminishing number of small, independent bookstores and, perhaps more importantly, should we be trying to do anything about them, or just let them close and be done with it?

It's not like we won't be able to get books anywhere else is it? Even if we refuse to buy books from the evil ones (the big superstores) we can still buy books at the grocery store, the airport, the used bookstore, a neighborhood garage sale...Oops! Those last two, they slop over into another area of contention. Resale of books without the author getting royalties. Or the publisher getting a new share, either, for that matter. Let's skip the resale issue for now.

Back to the small independent bookstore.

Is there a way to make a living -- a decent living, shall we say -- owning and operating a small independent bookstore today?

I don't have the answer, I'm asking you!

In the past ten years, I've had several friends who are (or were) small independent bookstore owners. One was quite comfortable, with a very popular store, until the landlord raised the rent. The result? Out of business.

Another was forced to move her store twice because of spiraling rent. At the final destination, the store flooded. Well, the parking lot flooded and then the store flooded. The result? Out of business. Two other bookstores in the area went out of business earlier that same year. I have no idea why. One day they were there, the next they were gone.

Another friend opened his bookstore nearly ten years ago in a strip mall. (No, there aren't any strippers there. That might actually bring in some business! That's what they call those little malls that spread out along side of the highway or street as opposed to an enclosed mall where all the stores are under one roof...) He has loads of free parking. But no one wants to drive out to where his store is so he spends most of his time trying not to give out all of his change to the customers of the Laundromat next door. He does get a few more people into the store when he has an author signing, but he loses money even on those deals. You'd be surprised how many cookies the attendees eat!

Only in business for a little over a year, another friend seems to be getting by, but not extravagantly. She can't afford to hire staff so she must operate the bookstore six days a week, all by herself. She's added a reading group. Perhaps that will increase her customer base a bit.

And the last friend I'm going to mention here just closed her bookstore in a pricey section of town -- Antiques Row -- and moved all of her stock to a cottage on her own property. Reason? Rent hike and declining sales. Now she'll concentrate on selling via the Internet and keep looking for an affordable storefront space in her own area, a suburb of a larger city.

If we work things out on paper, do the math...so to speak, it looks like it is nearly impossible to support a small independent endeavor unless the proprietor is independently wealthy. Unfortunately, not too many of them are. Independently wealthy, I mean.

We've been struggling with a similar problem here at the magazine for several years. Well, since we first began publishing, to be honest. We are not independently wealthy and publishing a magazine costs money. More money than we would like to put into the project year after year. We continue to struggle and try to whip up some energy for brainstorming our way out of this mess. Still, we come back to the same conclusion. And it's a conclusion that many small independent bookstores are also faced with.

We can't do this anymore.

Eventually a line is crossed and you have to admit that you may be the best bookstore in town, but you can't make it under the present conditions, and you close your doors.

A non-bookstore owning friend commented recently, "It happens all the time. And not just to bookstores. Favorite cafes close. Favorite stores go out of business after decades, or generations of being open. You can't keep things the way you want, just because you want it."

Maybe he's right.

I know it doesn't do any good to whine and try to place the blame. What we need is a way to fix the problem. I just haven't a clue what that might be.


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