Big Stores, Small Stores, and Knee-Jerk Reactions
A Rant By Alana Wingfoot

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On numerous mailing lists and newsgroups, I run into people who think that anything other than a small independent bookstore is Evil Incarnate. amazon.com? Tool of the patriarchy. Barnes and Noble? The Microsoft of the bookstore world. Borders? Should be shoved across some. Independent bookstore? Inherently saintly, and if you don't shop there, you're worsening all the ills of the world and putting The Good Guys out of business.

The trouble is, the situation isn't quite that simple.

I work in the marketing department of a small publisher. I've been reading about the whole megastore/indie issue for some time now. I've seen firsthand how the changes in the bookstore landscape have affected our own business. I've also talked a lot with people in my office who've worked in the book business for many years.

Yes, the chain stores, superstores, and more recently, online booksellers have put major pressure on independent bookstores. So have the mergers of many of the big publishers, the rise in paper prices (i.e. book prices), the collapse of the independent distribution system, rising shipping prices, the gradual disappearance of sales reps, etc. It's an oversimplication to say "Evil Chain Stores are destroying our independents!" And given that the independents were already having problems when amazon.com came on the scene, it's a gross oversimplification to say "amazon.com is destroying independents!"

Certain kinds of independent stores are hurt more than others. A store that caters to a general audience probably can't compete with the chain stores unless they do something really interesting -- a frequent buyer's club, a birthday club, frequent appearances by cool authors, etc. -- but the niche stores are actually holding up somewhat better. An independent mystery bookstore, for example, can afford to have a broad selection of authors and titles, because they aren't trying to sell every topic under the sun. They might well have a better selection than the chain store down the road, and they can provide more personalized service. These stores aren't having an easy time of it by any means, but they're a little better able to compete.

Also, while many people have the knee-jerk reaction "small store = good store", that's simply not the case. A small store may provide bad service, may not bother to stock books of interest to its community, may practice sloppy financial habits. From what I've heard from people who worked as sales reps, there were a lot of, frankly, unprofessional independent bookstores out there. When the superstores developed, we lost some good independents, but we lost far more bad independents.

"Yes," you say, "but doesn't that mean we should support the good independents?"

Certainly. If you have one. As Fazia points out in her rant, not everyone does. I'm from the Bible Belt. The only independent bookstores I've ever seen in my hometown are one general store that had very few topics interesting to me, and a bunch of Christian book stores -- and this was a city of about 150,000, and the situation before the superstores became prominent, let alone amazon.com. Feminist bookstore? What's that? A woman in my hometown who wanted to buy an interesting feminist book would have to either special order it (assuming the store was willing to special-order the book in question, and assuming the woman was aware of the book's existence in the first place), drive several hours to a nearby large city (and even then, I'm not sure if there was a feminist bookstore there), or find some place to mail order it (requiring that they know a place that sold the book and, again, know the book exists in the first place). When Barnes & Noble set up shop, that woman now could get a lot of books locally that other bookstores would never have carried. (By the way, one complaint occasionally raised about the chain stores is that because they're so big, they can't respond to local interests. If it were up to a lot of my home community, nothing about feminism, gay/lesbian issues, or race issues would be available in the city. Sometimes, not responding to local interests may be a GOOD thing.)

Now I live in a more liberal city with a feminist bookstore, and you know what? I don't shop there, because they don't carry the books I'm interested in. (The science fiction indie and the huge general indie are another story.)

But one thing that you have to keep in mind: Once upon a time, Barnes & Noble was an independent bookstore. Once upon a time, amazon.com was a fledgling independent online store. Right now, Powell's is an independent bookstore in Oregon -- if powells.com continues to grow, does this mean they'll become Evil?

No, I don't think that the big stores are pure and faultless. I'm angered by amazon.com's efforts to patent various web techniques. I think Barnes & Noble's attempt to purchase Ingram Book Group makes Microsoft's practices look positive in comparison, and three cheers that the purchase didn't go through. (Hint: Having the largest bookseller controlling the largest book distributor is A Bad Thing.) However, I do not consider these companies evil just because they are well-known and large, which is what most people seem to base their antipathy on.

But Big Stores are Part of the Patriarchy!

"Okay," you say, "the big stores may not be inherently demonspawn. However, we're feminists. Shouldn't we be supporting women's businesses? Amazon.com doesn't have any women on its board, and Barnes & Noble only has a couple. If we buy from them, we're supporting the patriarchy. Let's buy from woman-owned businesses instead."

Great idea. The problem is that by that argument, if we buy books at all, we're supporting the patriarchy; I don't know of any paper manufacturers that are woman-owned, and I suspect that the printers are also owned by men. (For that matter, the computers we're using are most definitely made by male-dominated companies; does that mean that we're supporting the patriarchy by getting on the Internet?)

But even if we let that slide, if a publisher in the Bertelsmann chain releases a really interesting feminist book, should we refuse to buy it? If a feminist bookstore orders their books through Ingram Book Group because it makes the paperwork easier than having six hundred accounts with individual publishers, should we refuse to shop there? If Jeff Bezos sold amazon.com to a gay man or to a group of women, would it suddenly become okay to shop there?

And again, a lot of us don't have access to a local woman-owned bookstore. As for online women's bookstores, I've looked at a few, and I'm not particularly impressed -- all too many of the ones I checked didn't have searchable catalogs, or didn't have their full list up, or were missing books that I'm interested in, or didn't have a way to easily order online. (One notable exception: Amazon Bookstore, an independent feminist bookstore in Minneapolis which predates amazon.com by twenty-five years; they actually carry a wide variety of books, and their online ordering system looks pretty good. Of course, if everyone and their cat orders from them, then they may be the Evil And Cursed Corporate Entity in another ten years -- but hey, ya gotta take the risk!)

Having said all this, I'll also share a deep dark secret: anyone can do what amazon.com does. You heard me; anyone can do what amazon.com does. You set yourself up as a business, get a commercial website, and order books -- at many presses, you only have to order about four or five books to get the standard discount, and once you're established, you may even be able to order directly from Ingram-- and you'll have an online bookstore. It does take a good-sized initial investment to buy your initial titles, storage space for the books, and time to process orders and maintain your website, but if you really want to beat the big folks, try it! (And if you want to have associate sites, call us, and we'll cheerfully switch. )


Copyright © 2000 by Alana Wingfoot