Monday, August 8, 2011

On Today's Journal Sentinel Article About the State of the General Indie Book Biz in Milwaukee, Post Borders (Oh, and Don't Forget About Debra Brenegan Tonight!)

My goodness, today's Journal Sentinel article was quite the surprise.  I'd spoken to Ms. Hajewski a few weeks ago, but I hardly expected placement on the top left corner. We've had several folks congratulate us on the coverage, One of our good customers came in and said with rather a surprise, "I didn't know you owned the store!"

My concern with the story, was that it sounded like I'm counting the days before I go out of business.  Nothing could be further from the truth. (This is a photo of our cookbook area. Joe Yonan, the food editor of the Washington Post, was quite complimentary about this section when he visited, and I can't help but pass this along.  Thank you, Mr. Yonan!)

I am concerned mostly about my "house of cards" comment at the end of the pice, which was mentioned in the context of a paragraph worth of material about how we're all at the mercy of consumer behavior, decisions about how books will be published and marketed, the strength of my neighborhood, and so on. We did seem a bit like an afterthought compared to some stores, but when I think about it, I'd much prefer being an afterthought to not being mentioned at all.

In addition to the stores mentioned, there at least three general indies in areas that the newspaper covers in other parts of the paper--Books and Company in Oconomowoc, Creekside Books in Cedarburg, and Fireside Books in West Bend.  Then there are all the specialty stores that sell books, like the African American focused Readers Choice, the LGBT friendly Outwards, Mystery One (market should be clear from that), the poetic Woodland Pattern, the children's store Rainbow, and the social justice-y People's.

But about that "house of comments", here are my thoughts.  As long as my store is treasured by my customers, they are making decisions that are different from what is going on in other markets without good bookstores--they are migrating slower to ereaders and continuing to buy more books even if they get them. However, if the business transitions past a certain point in ebooks, the store will likely face pressure to change, ironically, even if we got a substantial amount of that ebook business through the Google ereader program.  Because we'd then be a book showroom, and there really isn't the financial infrastructure to support a concept like that. And then we wouldn't be the bookstore you wanted, so you'd be less likely to jump through the hoops to buy your ebooks from us. That's the full effect of what I meant by "house of cards."

Not just bookstores are having this showroom issue.  Best Buy has noted that people browse their stores and buy online, and they are looking to sublet retail space to adjust to the new realities.

Will we change? Yes, but I still think I'll be able to have a great bookstore. More books will be print on demand, which will in some cases mean that I'm buying more titles outright, the way we already do with second-hand, bargain, and gift items. We'll probably one day have an Espresso book machine to print books in the store.  And I hope that one day the Google ebooks connection will allow us to have an easier way of downloading titles.  Already one hoop may be disappearing--you'll probably be able to buy from us without setting up a Boswell account; a Google account might be enough.

I'm not going to predict that more bookstores will close in the Milwaukee area; I'll leave that for other naysayers.  But I will predict that many mass merchants will cut the size of their book dep artments as the market changes, even as they've expanded them in the face of declining sales of music and video. They would just assume sell widgets as books, and that's our point of difference. I sell other stuff too (in fact, I have my eye on an adorable line of widgets) but the rest of it is just gravy--we're a bookstore first and foremost. So now the biq question, are we a physical bookstore or an ebookstore?

Some bookstores are putting way more effort into ebooks than we are. When I see it paying off for one of my indie friends, I'll investigate further.  Right now, we're being educated to saturate our marketing and signage to play up ebooks, but isn't that only making our physical book friends feel like they are still driving last year's model of car? Can't Boswell, for the most part, be an oasis from ebooks?

This is the philosophical divide going on in traditional bookstores and publishing and trade organizations. We know the business is changing.  We know that the physical book market is shrinking, though the media and pundits imply that it is way higher than it actually is.  It's one year in, and Nicholas Negroponte's pronouncement that physical books will be gone in five years sounds as outrageous as it did then.

And so we return to the story. Perhaps the house of cards analogy doesn't really work. But like the United States itself (everything from our political process to the stock market to the strength or lack thereof of the dollar), Boswell and many other independent bookstores are built on faith. We try to be the bookstore that you want, and you in turn support it. It's my goal to be here as long as you want us.  And at least for now, enough of you seem to want us.  So it seems appropriate to close as I do our email newsletters, thank you for your support.


Today's blog post sort of pre-empted my normal what's happening this week missive. But I would like to mention tonight's event, UWM creative writing alum Debra Brenegan is appearing at Boswell at 7 pm (that's 8/8) for Shame the Devil, her first novel that uses as a jumping off point, the life of Fanny Fern, the 19th century journalist, novelist, and suffragette.

Here's an explanation from Ms. Brenegan herself, recently interview by April Pohren on the Blogcritics website:

"Shame the Devil tells the remarkable and true story of Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis), one of the most successful, influential, and popular writers of the 19th century. A novelist, journalist, and feminist, Fern (1811-1872) outsold Harriet Beecher Stowe, won the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and served as literary mentor to Walt Whitman. Scrabbling in the depths of poverty before her meteoric rise to fame and fortune, she was widowed, escaped an abusive second marriage, penned one of the country's first prenuptial agreements, married a man 11 years her junior, and served as a 19th-century Oprah to her hundreds of thousands of fans. Her weekly editorials in the pages of the New York Ledger over a period of about 20 years chronicled the myriad controversies of her era and demonstrated her firm belief in the motto, "Speak the truth, and shame the devil." Through the story of Fern and her contemporaries, including Walt Whitman, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shame the Devil brings the intellectual and social ferment of mid-19th-century America to life."

Read the rest of the interview here and then join us tonight!

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