The Joys of a Small Independent Bookstore
We have become accustomed to hearing about the war between the small independent bookstores and the Wal-Mart-like super bookstores operated as chains. I must admit that I frequent many different kinds of bookstores, the various large chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble (I am a member of both of this discount membership programs) as well as several local independent bookshops and second hand bookstores. My own university bookstore is another favorite place for browsing.
Sociologist Laura Miller’s recent study on the capitalism of bookselling, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), ISBN 0-226-52590-2, provides a useful look into the dynamics of the relationship between the chains and the independents. We learn a lot about customer’s expectations of booksellers, and how booksellers have tried to diversify their appeal by transforming their stores into entertainment and social or community centers. As Miller suggests, “While large numbers of independent booksellers were driven out of business in the 1990s, those remaining tended to redouble their efforts to make the bookstore into more than just a place that houses books. The fierce competition between bookstores led independent and chain bookseller alike to put considerable resources into marketing the enjoyments that can be had from visiting the bookstore” (p. 125).
Miller also provides a lot of insights into what it is like to work in a bookstore. Low pay and tight control of employees works against the impression many have of the bookstore as a place one works just because of a love of books or because of some mission to influence the world as a place where culture and ideas are treated respectfully. Miller notes that even academics bring a kind of “anachronistic nostalgia” (p. 216) to their analysis of the bookstore, especially the independents.
Miller also pokes about a bit in the differences of employees’ knowledge of books between the independents and the chains, indicating that there are exceptions that can be found with some employees in every chain store even while acknowledging that the purpose of the super bookstore is mostly to move stock and make money, not to cultivate literary habits. And it is at this point that I wish Miller had provided more. While I learned a great deal reading her book, it still does not connect with my own experiences.
While I never miss an opportunity to go into any bookstore happening to be close by, just because you never know what you might happen across, there is only place in my routine where I actually discuss books with the store’s owner. A couple of miles from my house, down the hill and across the Allegheny River, is Aspinwall Books, owned and staffed by John Towle. When I go there we discuss books (and often religion and sports, not a completely illogical set of topics to connect), and he almost always goes and pulls a book from somewhere (it is a small store and books are stacked everywhere from floor to ceiling) he thinks I might be interested in. Unlike anywhere else, John knows what I read, and he often has unearthed something I had not heard of (although sometimes I make suggestions back to him as well).
An article by Regis Behe in the Pittsburgh Herald-Tribune in early 2005 described John in the following way:
“Knowing one's clientele is essential for a small bookstore. But it's also important to know one's product. At the Aspinwall Bookshop, owner John Towle tries to read as many new books as he can per week, including advance readers copies and galley proofs.
‘I probably start easily at a 100,’ he says, agreeing it's a staggering number.
Towle, however, can't humanly finish reading every book he starts. The real test of a book is if he decides to finish it, and then be able to recommend it to a customer,
‘It's a labor of love,’ he said. ‘Nobody is going to get rich doing this.’
Towle abets his business by selling books to schools and libraries, but most enjoys interacting with the regular customers he's developed over the five year's of his store's existence.
‘Most of them I know by name,’ Towle said.”
I couldn’t have captured my own experience at Aspinwall Books any better than this description. So, now those who often ask me how I track down the books I do know at least part of my secret; while I do well to plow through 4 or 5 books a week, I have a scout out there looking for me. And, oh, by the way, John told me he learned a lot reading Laura Miller’s book.