Dave Wood's Book Report, July 9, 2008
On a recent trip to Great Britain my wife and I were pointedly reminded that the United States is running out of independent bookstores. Everywhere we went on that tight little island, we found charming little bookstores. Our first stop was a small village in the Cotswalds, called Stowe-on-Wold. Sure enough, two independent bookstores. On a trip to the West Country, we stopped for lunch at Jamaica Inn, which takes its name from Daphne DuMaurier's famous novel which was also made into a movie. Our little coterie, walked out of the restaurant/museum with brand new paperback copies of DuMaurier's old books.
Of course in London the bookstore chains have a huge presence, but little bookstores offering new and used are everywhere on the cityscape.
Such is not the case in the U.S. of A. Not long ago, Minneapolis was known for its great independents, like the Hungry Mind in St. Paul and Odegaard's in St. Paul, both broke now. Odegaard's also had a huge presence in Minneapolis's Uptown district, but when it moved to Edina fell flat. Micawber's hung on for years and, rumor has it, its owner finally gave the store to his faithful manager.
Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble and behemoths like it just bulldoze their way into shopping centers, offer publishers big discounts on bestsellers and find themselves in a perfect position to dictate to publishers what to publish and what to send back unpublished to authors both new and experienced. So what once was a gentleman's business not too interested in making big bucks has become just one more Goliath that needs a David to slay it. (Don't look at me!)
Customers have also had a share in the decline of the independents. Where I live in River Falls, Wis., there was a very elegant independent that even had an espresso bar. But as soon as Barnes &Noble moved into nearby Woodbury, folks drove the extra miles to save 20 percent on New York Times bestsellers. And the fate of our little bookstore was sealed.
It's difficult to blame readers for searching out discounts, but in the end there's a definite possibility that these same readers will have fewer books to choose from, especially specialized books and books that are interesting but fated to have small sales. Let me illustrate: A few years ago I self published a book about Christmas customs in Wisconsin. Once in possession of 2,000 copies, I found that Barnes & Noble expected a 60 percent discount to handle my book. That would have meant I'd barely break even on the transaction and if the book didn't sell, Barnes & Noble would send them back to me shopworn and I'd lose my keister.
Fortunately local businesses came to my rescue: banks, saloons, restaurants and the Independent drugstore in town, where the wonderful Denise and Leah took me under their wings and sold about 100 copies! Freeman's pharmacy is still at it and handles more than 20 self-published titles authored by folks and town and some of their prescription customers.
All this got me thinking about the independent bookstores in my memory. Years ago, my wife and I and another couple traveled to the tiny Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye to look at its many bookstores, 27 in all if memory serves. Our friend Ralph, who at the time owned an old French car, walked into our first bookstore and said "Do you have a copy of an operator's manual for a 1961 Peugot 303?" The clerk was back in minutes with exactly what Ralph had ordered. Try that at Barnes & Noble.
There are myriad stories of strange and exotic bookstores that dotted the American countryside years ago. In his autobiography, novelist Erskine Caldwell tells of graduating from college and finding it difficult to sell his first novel. To make ends meet, he began reviewing new books for various newspapers for paltry sums- -$5 to $10 for great big doorstopper. Soon review copies began to pile up in his rundown apartment in Maine. So he started a bookstore and made enough money to tide him over until his publishing ship came in.
In our south Minneapolis neighborhood, a long empty storefront opened up. I walked in to find an elderly gent with 25,000 books neatly shelved behind him. All the books were on religious subjects. Turns out the elderly gent was a retired college president from South Dakota whose hobby was collecting religious books, until they filled the presidential mansion. When he retired, he and his wife moved to Minneapolis into a small condo. What to do with the books? Rent an empty storefront and store them there. And if he did that, why not open a bookstore and sell some? He did it and enjoyed a great business. Long live the independent bookstore.
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.