The Evolving World Of Booksales

I just finished reading Tyler Cowen’s article “What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For” over at Slate.com. In the article Mr. Cowen attempts to tackle the assumption that the disappearance of indie bookstores signals the growing strength of capitalism in the form of superstores, and simultaneously the death of literary intellectualism. Cowen thinks the hoopla over the abundance of superstores and the lack of indie stores is much ado about nothing.

Cowen states that “Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation””a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community”¦[p]atronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case”¦ the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest.”

I agree with all of that wholeheartedly. There’s nothing I despise more than a bunch of self-important jerkoffs sitting around discussing the book du jour with their stupid little goatees, and their Marlboro Light cigarettes and their cups of Starbucks coffee, and their Kanji tattoos and their holier-than-thou attitudes. I just wanna flip them out of their chairs, pour their six dollar latte over their head and scream “Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac are not the only American authors out there, you pretentious ass!”

Ahem. Sorry ”˜bout that. On with my critique.

Here’s where Cowen and I slightly part ways. He makes the claim that “But when it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems. The superstores’ scale allows them to carry many more titles, usually several times more, than do most of the independents.”

Okay, I agree with the discount aspect. That all boils down to wholesale numbers. Since B&N and Borders place orders from the publishers for millions of books at a time they will always receive a much larger discount than the indie store, and rightly so. As far as the inventory systems go, of course they posses “superior computer-driven inventory systems.” They have to. With that many books entering through receiving and exiting through the cashwraps no paper card catalogue or human being could possibly keep up.

However, as great as their inventory systems perform and their stock levels dazzle, I’ve yet to encounter a superstore with exemplary, hell decent, customer service. Again, I believe that this all boils down to numbers. With high stock levels and a constant stream of new books arriving daily from Distribution Centers and publishers, combined with long store hours, these superstores hire workers out of necessity. Put simply, they need lots of hands to stock, receive, run the registers, take out the trash, etc. etc. etc., and most of the time the raw need for a worker takes precedence over the fact that said worker possesses little or no knowledge of books or sales.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t expect the bookseller to be able to give me a post-colonial reading of “The Tempest,” or a deconstruction reading of “Waiting for Godot.” I’d be happy if the be-boppin’ nitwit with the pants hanging lower than the crack of his ass knew where to find the bestsellers. Look, I worked in a small bookstore for quite a few years. I knew the sections that interested me, but I also knew the ones that didn’t just as well, because hey, that was my job. I’ve come across clerks who seemed surprised that they carried books at all. Those superstores may house an enormous inventory and an impressive backstock, but nine times out of ten the book stooge can’t find any specific one of them. And those computer systems Cowen seems so enamored with? I can’t count the number of times I’ve pushed the clerk out of the way and used the computer myself. Lighting fast search algorithms don’t mean shit if the goth-freak with the name tag lacks the skill to utilize them.

And I’m only partly blaming the clueless multitude of book-stooges. I know the superstore only pays them a pittance, and I’m sure they only work part-time which doesn’t leave them with enough hours on the floor to acquaint themselves with the location of Kurt Vonnegut.

Cowen also claims that places like Amazon and internet blogs offer readers a place to discuss literature, which suffices for the conversations that in the past took place in the indie store. Hey, I own the domain “Hyperliterature” and I’ve discussed quite a few novels and works of literature on this here site, but no text conversation will ever take the place of human interaction. I will talk for hours about books I love, and I cherish the interaction between friends and acquaintances about literature. And as much as I love comments and emails about books/movies/politics/etc, I’d much rather sit down with you face to face and share a coffee/tea/smoothie and talk. No blog/email/comment/review will ever replace that.

Other than those nagging little details I enjoyed his article. I, too, love the emergence of Google Books search, Amazon’s Search Inside feature, and out of print books available on-line. I’m curious as to how larger servers with huge arrays of drives offering teraflops of data storage will affect more traditional means of print storage, such as libraries. The day is rapidly approaching when we have the means to store all books electronically.

But then the question of access becomes important. Who has it and how do they use it?

Of course, that’s the topic for another post.

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Comments

  1. Anniina says:

    And the giant book warehouses will never replace the atmosphere – nothing like browsing in a tiny store whose owner loves books, the smell of the old volumes, the feeling of discovery when one makes a rare find, the feeling of sanctuary in the midst of all that knowledge, of all that art of the book. While I love the ease of using etexts, especially when doing research, I would never take an etext to read before bed. People were predicting that the book would be dead 10 yrs ago when e-texts came into being, yet lo and behold, they have only increased our desire to have and to hold those lovely friends in their real, physical forms – no amount of bits and pixels can compare to the real thing.

  2. bookboy says:

    funny how in the Mall where our bookstore (B&N) is we have 3 stores selling candles even though we have had light bulbs for 100 yrs now. Books are to be held they were made for the human hand. I’ve worked at a Superstore for over 12 years, seen a lot of change. People want choice and they vote with their pocket book. How long would you continue to shop at your local grocery store if they only offered one kind of mustard? It is what it is. Little or big is not so important as is that I can work with books every day.

  3. Mark A. says:

    anniina:

    But, do you think that eventually the pendulum will swing the other way, and it will again become a sign of prestige or wealth to own a bound codex? What I mean is, at some point it will become silly for publishers to print and bind all the texts they own instead of housing them locally in data storage devices. I can see people ordering bound books less frequently when that happens. Something like already occurs in the form of publishers like Hill House who specialized in published leather-bound editions with sewn bindings. Just a thought.

    Bookboy:

    I have no quarrel with anything you said. I, too, appreciate the luxury of shopping at a store with massive stock levels. But if you work in a bookstore then you know what I mean about untrained stooges who wouldn’t know a koontz from a kafka. Or get their ties stuck in the register drawer. Or anything else moronic.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Just a few things to point out:

    A goatee is a fine thing! Usually the only people who complain are those who can’t grow.

    Cigarettes are one of the greatest contributions of the Amerindians to our culture and a wonderful cash cow for the government. We certainly need more money for our government so that they can continue to finance important programs like wire-tapping! And on a related subject; How in the work can your complain about Starbucks? This company does for coffee what the Indie bookstore does for books (and the tobacco companies). They exploit the hopes of poor people groups hoping to improve their lot in this harsh, exploitive, unfeeling, etc capitalistic world, and pedal a mood altering drug (what if tobacco is addictive-at least that’s what some bull shit cry my heart out scientist says!). And while they push their coffee, they hide their evils by championing the environment (like coffee plants don’t just leech nutrients out of the ground) and other shit so that the soft minded flock to their coffee.

    What about the fucking kanji on your blog? I bet you have one hidden on your back or butt or something like that!

    M. O. Ronsky

  5. Anonymous says:

    In all honesty I don’t know if I care on way or the other. I have experienced bad service at both and good conversations at both. It doesn’t seem to matter wheither it is online, indie, mega store each has the same problems. You meet the pretentious, you can’t find what you want.

    I will always prefer a book in my own hands. I know that this might not be the wave of the future, but . . .

    I was always jealous of my professors, because of the vast collection of books that these people and what they represented. I have always wanted to know everything and these people were ahead of me, as these books testified.

    I have come to believe that it didn’t matter to me how I obtained the book as long as I got it.

    I am a fan of amazon and don’t mind the wait, ’cause I am reading something anyway and have more books than I have been able to read anyway.

    One thing that I hate is the membership card that these places pimp on you. I worked there and pimped the card and felt dirty every time (but it was a job). If you can sell the book for less then do it. At one time I know that I had several cards to several of these places (I like amazon’s and other’s prices. I know that might make me cheap or moronic. Oh well). I appreciate why they do it but it bothers me.

    So I’m not shedding tears, so long as I can still get my hands on those precious books.

    Flood

    PS I went to a mega store and used one of their cards today. Does that make me dirty?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Oh yeah Kerouac did write the great american novel, even if he didn’t make your list!

    M. O. Ronsky

  7. bookboy says:

    Mark A.
    You are right there are people who want to work in a bookstore because it’s “cool”, and when interviewed the only thing they read is Manga. Or they think that they will get to read all day, got to love them. You would better served if you asked ” Is there someone on staff that knows this subject”. Like people who work on cars, some should and some shouldn’t. What I love is when you meet a person who just seems plain, and they may want a book on let’s say tractors. You take them there and show them a couple of books, and they start talking about their love of tractors, the shapes, colors and smells- yes smells. And 20 mins has gone by and now your talking about Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance. But that is a good day, there are just as many bad. But I’ll take it.

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