From The Literary Hub:
In 2014, the first-ever Independent Bookstore Day launched in California. It was conceived by bookseller and writer Samantha Schoech, who partnered with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association to highlight the important cultural value independent bookstores bring to their communities. The following year, Independent Bookstore Day became a national event. Since then, writers like Roxane Gay, Stephen King, George Saunders, and Lauren Groff have donated their work to the holiday.
Now in its fifth year, the 2018 Independent Bookstore Day on April 28th (tomorrow!) will host special events, readings, performances, and more at over 490 bookstores nationwide.
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Matt Grant: Tell me a little about Independent Bookstore Day. What is it, and what is your role as an ambassador?
Celeste Ng: Independent Bookstore Day is a one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country on the last Saturday in April—this year it’s on April 28th. Because every independent bookstore is unique and independent, every party is different as well, and can include everything from cupcake parties to literary scavenger hunts to live bands and author readings. Every year there are also exclusive books and literary items that you can only get on that day at your local bookstore. As the Independent Bookstore Day Ambassador, I get to spread the word about Bookstore Day and the important role that independent bookstores play in their communities.
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MG: Did you have a favorite bookstore growing up?
CN: When I was a kid in the 1980s, I didn’t have any independent bookstores near me—I grew up haunting the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks in the mall. So my first indies—the long-gone Booksellers in Beachwood, Ohio and the redoubtable Mac’s Backs in Cleveland Heights—were revelations; they carried such a wide array of books, including niche titles that a more mainstream retailer wouldn’t have. I discovered many of my favorite authors just by browsing their shelves. Then, when I went away to college, Harvard Book Store became a haven for me. Porter Square Books in Cambridge is now my local—I can walk to it from my house—but I’ve developed crushes on many indies across the country as I’ve traveled, including (in no particular order) The Red Balloon in St. Paul, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Powell’s in Portland, and Loganberry Books in my old hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
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MG: What would your dream bookstore look like?
CN: Lots of shelves of books, obviously—far enough apart for easy browsing but just close together enough to give you that cozy, warren-like feel. Plenty of little nooks or armchairs for sitting and reading. Art by local artists on the walls. Quirky, well-read, and opinionated staff. Lots of shelf talkers and a few special displays around the bookstore for whatever the staff wanted to highlight—books related to recent news topics, themed or seasonal displays, etc. A good-sized children’s section with toys and places for kids to sit and read, so we can start encouraging readers early on! Maybe a bookstore dog or cat (optional). And a cafe section with a decent amount of seating, because 1. (selfishly) I like to write in bookstores and bookstore coffee shops are a great place for that, and 2. (more practically) people seem to buy more books when they linger, and coffee and snacks help with that.
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MG: The common belief (outside the publishing world) is that indie bookstores nationwide are dying, and yet more than 40 opened in 2017. Why do you think there’s a disconnect between perception and reality?
CN: It’s human nature to not notice a problem until we’re on the verge of disaster, right? And it’s also human nature to extrapolate any signs of progress into victory. The truth is that indie bookstores have been fighting for survival for years—decades, even—as big-chain bookstores and then online book sales started to edge them out. It was only when many of the indies had closed that people started to realize what they were missing and tried to reverse the trend. So the growth in indie bookstores is a pretty new bend in the curve.
Maybe a good analogy is putting an animal on the endangered species list: when its population starts to rise again, it’s great, but it doesn’t mean you stop all your conservation efforts. There’s still a long way to go. It’s fantastic that more communities are recognizing the value of independent bookstores, and that more people are opening stores across the country. But as any bookseller will tell you, it’s hard work and the margins are pretty thin. A more telling figure might be how many of those new stores are still open in five, ten, fifteen years—and that really depends on whether customers support them.
Link to the rest at The Literary Hub
PG wonders what proportion of the population of the United States lives within 20 minutes of an independent bookstore. What might be the answer to that question if it were modified to read “a good independent bookstore?”
PG loves Powell’s Books. If he lived close by, he would visit Powell’s every few weeks or months. He even has a Powell’s t-shirt somewhere in his closet. He enjoyed his one visit to Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle several years ago and The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, also several years ago.
However, PG can’t remember the last time he purchased a physical book in a physical bookstore that wasn’t a gift for a child. Perhaps this says more about PG’s memory than he would like to admit, but the simple fact is that, as a product category, there are few product categories that lend themselves to ecommerce better than books do. Ebooks are self-explanatory, but physical books are generally of a predictable size and very tough to damage once they’re in a box.
He’s mentioned this subject before, but thinks it bears repeating – most independent bookstores are places where most of the staff earns minimum wage or its local economic equivalent. The people you interact with in an independent bookstore are probably living at poverty levels by local standards, in the bottom 10-20% of wage-earners. Managers will adjust schedules so most, if not all, bookstore employees are classified as part-time, so the store is not obligated to provide fringe benefits like health insurance, sick leave or paid vacations.
If you felt guilty several years ago about buying grapes that were picked by poverty-stricken migrant workers, you might think about whether the bookstore employees at the independent bookstores are being similarly exploited.
For Barnes & Noble employees, there is a possible path to promotion and a higher salary.
Burger flipping at McDonalds is the archetypal dead-end job, at least in the US. However, most McDonalds store managers started out flipping hamburgers and the average McDonald’s store manager can expect to make over $45,000 per year. How likely are employees at an independent bookstore to have an opportunity for that kind of upward mobility?
A lot of people who make more money than independent bookstore owners and employees have a big stake in the survival of those stores, however. When Barnes & Noble finally goes bankrupt, traditional publishers large and small will rely on independent bookstores and their rickety financial foundations for their financial future.
The only alternative will be competing with aggressively priced indie books on the dreaded Zon.