The Business Desk

Our Better Shelves

After visiting more than 2,000 independent bookstores—at least virtually—the Amazon annihilation, Orwell misquotes and all, doesn’t seem quite so inescapable.

Blues Section II, Stanford Kay, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Madelyn Jordon Fine Art.

By my count, there are 2,305 independent bookstores still standing in the USA. You can’t find them everywhere. In the Dakotas, there are 20, total. California’s Bay Area boasts 142, more than any state except New York (home to 175). In Louisiana, 16 of the state’s 20 indies reside in New Orleans. Some stores, like Tim’s in Provincetown, scale back their hours in winter; Kramerbooks in DC stays open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays, 1 a.m. otherwise. Scout’s Books, in Vale, Ore., is open by chance.

What you’ll find inside varies, too: children’s books, mysteries, technical books, bibles, anarchist fare, foreign language titles, literature. There are specialists and there are generalists. There are bookstores housing cafes, and a few that serve booze. The stores have names that are hopeful (Finally Found), adventurous (Book Quest), and enigmatic (Spoonbill and Sugartown). Others, 134 of them, name-check animals. There is a Bluebird and a Blue Dragon and two Black Swans (in Virginia and Kentucky), a Nightbird and a Firefly; there are nearly 20 Bookworms; there’s a Cricket and an Aardvark.

Black Bear Books, in Boone, NC, was supposed to close last month. They had a change of heart, though. “To borrow from Mark Twain,” they explained on their blog, “the report of our death is greatly exaggerated! … We had our big going-out-of-business sale and we [were] down to two display tables and a few boxes of books … when somehow we came up with the idea to move into the middle of the mall and run a little bookstore kiosk.” BBB asks patrons to bear with them during the transition and help “prove that Boone CAN support a book store!”

Whether Boone can or cannot support B3 is one question; whether America can or cannot support its 2,000-plus extant “brick and mortar” independent bookstores is another. In the mid-’90s there were three times as many indies in America, almost 7,000. The arrival of the big chains, plus Amazon, plus e-books, sent that number into what looks depressingly like a perpetual decline. In another 20 years, will they all be gone? The particular fate of our Boone Bear doesn’t necessarily speak to what will happen nationally. Personally, I’m glad to know they aren’t dead yet.

In 1897, Mark Twain wasn’t either. Thirteen years too soon, the New York Herald published that the author was “grievously ill and possibly dying.” Twain was, actually, only in England. The next day, the New York Journal carried his amused and amusing, now famous, refutation: that the report had been “an exaggeration.”

I was reacting against a more recent piece of news when I set out to collect America’s independent bookstores into a database, to build the online directory I’ve dubbed Better Places to Buy Books; the news made me think that now, more than ever, we ought to book-shop locally. If you’re reading this, it’s impossible you haven’t heard: A “battle” is underway between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group, one of publishing’s Big Five. What they’re bickering about are the pricing and spoils of e-book sales, but what’s at stake is so much more. The A/H squabble “could shape the future of ideas,” one Atlantic headline suggested. The Guardian offered, “New Amazon terms amount to ‘assisted suicide’ for book industry, experts claim.”

The initial outrage, and what brought public attention to the dispute, stemmed from some dubious tactics employed by Amazon to put pressure on Hachette: reducing its inventory of HBG’s titles, delaying shipments to customers, removing pre-order options. This hurt Hachette’s profits, but also its authors’ paychecks, inspiring writer Douglas Preston to rally a crew of 906 authors—including commercial superstars like James Patterson and members of the literary elite like newly Pulitzer-ed Donna Tartt—to sign a letter petitioning Amazon to “resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers.” The statement ran as a two-page advert in this past Sunday’s New York Times, the letter in largish typeface on the left, the authors’ names—small and filling six columns—on the right.

In Quartzsite, Ariz., you can buy your books from a nudist. In West Chester, Pa., a five-story stone structure built in 1822 houses hundreds of thousands of used and rare editions, and a cat.

Amazon’s counter to Authors United (as Preston’s group is calling itself) arrived a day before that ad, in the form of an email to its self-pub’ed Kindle authors. E-books, the letter argues, are a lot like paperbacks, which appeared on the scene in the mid-1930s, costing way less than hardcovers (25 cents as opposed to $2.50, according to the email). Cheap like Amazon wants e-books to be, they were disdained by the old guard. Even George Orwell—the letter says—worried that these more affordable volumes would ruin the industry.

Never mind that Orwell was in fact praising Penguin’s paperbacks, not disparaging them. “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them,” is what Orwell actually said. If you excise everything in that sentence before the word “publishers,” though, as Amazon’s email does, suddenly the meaning seems a bit different. Suddenly you can suggest that George Orwell endorsed collusion.

In its own analysis of the situation, Amazon casts itself as the hero, “working hard to make books less expensive” and “build a healthy reading culture,” thus “rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger.” Meanwhile, the stodgy lit establishment is “resisting change.” Hachette is anti-e-book, is the not-so-subtle subtext.

It’s a fallacious argument because nobody, as far I can see, is suggesting that e-books are going to destroy literary culture and harm the industry. At least that isn’t being mentioned in connection with the A/H dispute. Actually, the argument being made—and not by Authors United, which is only asking for an end to the authors-as-pawns-in-contract-negotiation malarky—is that Amazon itself is the threat to literary culture.

The internet retailer already controls an estimated 50 percent of US book sales. Granted the freedom to set e-book prices lower than its competitors can afford, it could easily gain more market share. (A freedom, it might be worth pointing out, that government regulations prevent in places like France and Germany, where no Book Apocalypse is in the forecast.) The larger Amazon’s share of the market, the greater its ability to make unilateral decisions: about pricing, yes, but also, potentially, about what will be published and promoted. And we’ve just had proof that it’s willing to manipulate book sales for its own purposes. When a monopoly involves, say, a utility, there are economic consequences. When it involves books, the future of ideas is at stake.

One thing that became apparent, as I clicked through a few thousand bookstore websites, was the diversity of their dispositions. Through some amalgamation of the places where they reside and the people who run them, they are fitted to their communities in a way Amazon will never be. In Quartzsite, Ariz., you can buy your books from a nudist (at Reader’s Oasis). In Houston, volumes on welding, hydraulics, and nanotechnology populate Brown Book Shop, in the technical book biz for 68 years. In West Chester, Pa., Baldwin’s Book Barn, a five-story stone structure built in 1822, houses hundreds of thousands of used and rare editions, and a cat.

When I’m worried about the state of publishing or the state of the world or the state of my life, I often wander down to my own local indie, BookCourt. I don’t go there to shop, necessarily, or even to talk with the booksellers whom I know, and who know me, by name. No, I go there to be in the presence of books and what they represent: curiosity, passion, and the breadth of a world that will, thank god, always be beyond me. Need I say I can find none of this online?

I began my search in a nervous mood. But as I entered name after name into the database, wandering virtually into every store I could discover between our shining seas, I ceased, slowly, to worry. A conviction took hold in my heart: that whatever the outcome of this corporate kerfuffle, the bookstores—and so, too, what they support: books and writers and their communities—will survive this perilous moment.

Unfortunately, the numbers and the news reports don’t allow for my dismissal of doom. They say this is the end of book culture as we know it—or: How could anyone fight Goliath? What I think is, if we give up now on the Black Bears of America, then we are doomed. But if we choose to believe in them, to support them, then how can they possibly disappear?

Kate Brittain has written fiction and nonfiction for the Paris Review Daily, Blunderbuss, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and Tin House’s blog. Email her to send in corrections and additions for the Better Places directory. More by Kate Brittain