29 April 2017

Independent "Bookstore" Day

…and why I'm not participating (aside from health and related issues).

In this hybrid college-and-agriculture community 100km up the coast from Seattle, it's simple: The local independent bookstores really aren't. They're not truly independent, in that many are outposts of other agendas (such as the evangelical-protestant and New Age outlets). They're not bookstores, such as the comic shop (overrun with not-to-my-taste superhero material) and the purportedly award-winning quaint indy with approximately half of its floor space devoted to products other than books (and even that is not well populated, arranged, or displayed).

More to the point, that purportedly award-winning store also has the serious difficulties raised by the combination of insufficient diversity and insufficient size, reflected in some curious decisions. For example, speculative fiction imprints are relegated to the equivalent of approximately three six-foot bookcases in a corner on the top floor… but not intershelved, like speculative fiction from imprints that don't use rockets or dragons (or space marines or mostly-naked "barbarians") on the cover. The Sparrow, The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, 1984: A Novel, Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 — all are intershelved with the main collection, along with mystery/true crime. This is just one example of curiously selective ghettoization, which is not at all justified by the size of the store. And it's actually even worse with military history, with law/government/politics, and with the age-old mythology-versus-religion problems. Meanwhile, this store does interleave used with new books…

If it sounds like I'm picking on one particular store, in a way I suppose I am. I'm more generally objecting to the established retail wisdom that seems to dictate both store layout and store staffing, and these problems are worse at independent nonspecialist stores that do not have quick access to a larger catalog offsite — not B&N now, but Borders or Brentano's a quarter of a century ago. Specialist stores in the US tend to be actually worse — just try finding a nonbestseller that by content fits within the specialist store's stated collection, but is not from an allied specialized imprint, on the new release shelves. Routinely. (Yes, I'm looking at all of you, specialty stores in the Bay Area, to name just one particular desert I've encountered relatively recently… when I could park within walking distance of the stores, given that public transportation would require well over 90 minutes from less than 25km away.)

Instead, I'll be using the real alternative to industrially-cloned chain bookstores: The library. It's a bad sign for a mid-sized local community's bookstores when one is more likely to find new-release specialty fiction or nonfiction at the library than at the purportedly-award-winning "independent bookstore" in town…