Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bookstore Story

It was 1970 when my oldest sister got married; I'm not positive about all this, and like the rest of the story, I don't plan on doing any research for this story, so let's make it easy and shelve it in fiction. Publishers and authors do this all the time, right?

About that time, she and her husband moved to a small midwest city and lived there pretty much for the next decade. For a New Yorker, it was a very different place. I didn't even know what being a college town meant. All I know is that is was smaller, it was in the midwest, and in retrospect, that her landlord had worked in notions (I think that has to do with sewing) at the old local department store.

It seemed like we visited them almost every year, always by car, travelling through endless farm fields where it looked like wheat, but was most likely corn. When we got there, I have no idea what we did. As a ten-year-old kid, my most vivid memory is of an ice cream shop.

But my sister had stories, and when I got a little older, she and my brother-in-law told me about the legendary book shop that had opened shortly after they got there. It was there through most of my visits, but I'm pretty positive we never set foot inside. We just weren't that kind of family.

The story jumps to a friend of mine, a librarian at the university. His memory is very steel trappish, but once again, I don't care to do any research. Fiction. Based on a possibly true story. Names changed to protect the innocent.

One brother opened the second-hand bookshop. The other brother got interested and developed an inventory system. They added new books. I think they say the original location of the store is now a restaurant. You wouldn't know--they've totally remodeled.

They moved across the street, added a store front, added an upstairs. Thriving is a good word for it. They brought in other stores to use the inventory system. For a long time, they were considered a wholesaler, though I'm not sure if a bookstore outside the network was able to buy from them. I think not.

After I had moved to the midwest, I took a road trip with my friend John and we stopped to see the flagship. It was bustling. It wasn't like some bookstore visits, where I left overwhelmed and inspired, but it was a very nice bookstore for a college town.

Before we left, I went to see a department store that had a branch in town. In terms of retail, I was pretty obsessed with these things. Little did I know that this bookstore would one day move into this space. That's a mind blower--I really could not conceive of a bookstore this large, and I had spent my childhood visiting the large bookstores of Fifth Avenue. But I don't think they were as big as this department store, and one filled up their store with things like artwork and jewelry. My first brush with nonbook.

We also stopped by a sandwich shop, which was one of my sister's most intense fond memories of the city. There were a lot of folks sitting around studying. I had a sandwich it was good. It closed shortly after the visit. We were sad.

The story doesn't end there. It just gets less romantic. New locations, a merger with a mall-based competitor, and a series of owners, and debt piled up and then changes in shopping habits. As is common in business, there are some bad decisions made. Working as I have done at a small business, I always said you can make a bad decision, but probably only one at a time.

First came the bankruptcy, and now, the liquidation. On one hand, a lot of independent booksellers put out of business by competition; on the other, new markets where there might not have been a bookstore. Now there are a lot of booksellers who've lost or are losing their jobs. Now there’s one less large company making purchasing decisions. But if you're a bookstore with a branch nearby and you were struggling, this could be your lifeline to survival. And of course the large competitors will also benefit.

Last night I had dinner with, and did a presentation to one of my favorite book clubs. The continuing theme of the evening seemed to be crappy endings for good novels. It's so darn hard to end a story well, and it's hard to see how this could have ended well. There was simply too much debt. They couldn't play price war with their internet competitor. The publishers, though they wanted the business, couldn't really extend payment terms after looking at the reorganization plan. And the company that wanted to bid for the bookstores as a going concern wouldn't promise that they themselves wouldn’t liquidate the stores.

So what's the end of this fictional story, based on a true incident? I sometimes say that the difference between a happy and sad ending depends on where you choose to end the story. I choose to make it happy, not for me, but for you, the reader. So here is where I cut things off.

You live in a town that did not have a independent bookstore (or sadly, perhaps there was an indie bookstore but you didn't particularly like it) suddenly getting this beautiful new store, 20,000 square feet of books. You walk in, the bookseller says hi, you might even chat for a while. Or maybe you were happy that finally you walked into a bookstore where someone didn't say hi, and wasn't on top of you for your whole visit. Give me some space, you wanted to scream.

It's a cathedral of books. Look at all those dictionaries! And those cookbooks! And can you believe there could be so many people who liked science fiction? You thought you were the only one. And a comfy chair to browse through your purchases.

Could you ever be so happy? No, probably not. You're going to shop here forever.

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