Monday, May 22, 2006

In Bookstores, Size Does Matter

Although it may get me drummed out of the bibliophile's sodality, I must say I agree with Tyler Cowen's article on Slate praising the big chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble and gently debunking the mystique of the independents. (Comments from Slate's fraysters are posted here; to see them, scroll down past the more recent material posted above it.)

I have fond feelings about some specific independent bookstores that I've spent happy hours in, including New York's famous Gotham Book Mart, the charming Yellow Umbrella in Chatham on Cape Cod, and Denver's Tattered Cover. (The latter, somewhat ironically, was one of the first "book superstores" and therefore created the model that Borders and B&N would later use to take over the industry--at least until the advent of Amazon threatened to make that model obsolete.)

But stores like these--richly stocked with a wide variety of titles, redolent with literary history, and staffed by knowledgeable book-lovers--are few and far between. I've been in many more independent bookstores that are drab, understocked, and run by clerks no more insightful about literature than the average barista at Starbucks.

One of my good friends and a fellow member of my monthly book group used to make a point of shopping at Fox and Sutherland, a venerable independent book store in Mount Kisco, New York. Marty felt it was a matter of principle to support the independent owner against the encroachment of the giant chains. When he and I swapped notes about our latest book purchases, I always felt vaguely guilty about saying, "I bought it at Borders."

But on those occasions when I visited Fox and Sutherland, I rarely found the book I was looking for. Many shelves were devoted to things like picture frames, jigsaw puzzles, leather datebooks, and board games--nice goods that perhaps have higher profit margins than books, but hardly made the store into a bastion of high culture. Eventually I gave up and started spending all my book dollars at Borders, where I almost always found the title I wanted (and several other good ones to boot)--that is, when I wasn't patronizing Amazon, where virtually everything is of course available.

I understand the sentimental appeal of the old-style hometown bookstore. But I'm also a realist. Very few Americans have ever been lucky enough to live in a town blessed with such a store. (Jacques Barzun once observed that the relatively unavailability of good books was one reason America was considered "not a reading country": If hamburgers were equally difficult to find, he quipped, America would be "not an eating country.") For most of us, the arrival of the giant chains--and of Amazon--has been a genuine boon.

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