Book Thoughts

Spent a morning with Sally (who’s now 11) at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison last week. We hadn’t been there in ages, though a few months ago I co-led a book tour of New Haven that R.J. Julia sponsored. When I told Sally she’d been there years ago to see a live theatrical presentation based on the Junie B. Jones chapter-books, staged in front of a schoolbus in the bookstore parking lot, Sal said she thought she’d dreamed that.

There is something dreamlike about R.J. Julia. It’s the kind of comfortable, clean, well-kept, fully stocked independent bookshop that existed in most East Coast suburbs throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but these days are as rare as, well, most things to do with the printed word.

Many bookshops were driven out of business by large retail book chains such as Borders and B. Dalton, which eventually went under themselves. The few that have persisted have earned every sale they make: they are attentive to customers’ needs, buy new stock carefully, diversify their offerings without undercutting their main purpose (R.J. Julia has non-book gift items and jigsaw puzzles) and sponsor events which bring in the community as a whole and don’t just target the same diligent regulars.

But, just as wisely, in this age of immediate online purposes of anything made under the sun, these stores know that they can’t be all things to all people.

I read something on Facebook recently about someone seeing a front-cover review in the New York Times Book Review and being unable to find the book at several different independent bookstroes. The intimation was that indie bookstores, by not stocking the Times’ noteworthies, are not doing their job and are thus complicit in their own extinction.

As a former bookseller myself, I disagree. Much as many indie bookstores (and record stores for that matter) would like to have ready copies of any and every book any potential customer might require, that’s simply not how the business works. When my small shop was around in the late 1980s—when you could still dream of making a go at such a career—the spate of New York Times-honored books were a snare and a delusion. The problem was the same then as now—bigger dealers had easier access to them, could buy them in greater quantities, could sell them (often at discounts greater than the profit margin—“loss leaders,” as they’re known) and didn’t mind remaindering them if they didn’t sell. Back then, it was the was the brick-and-mortar retail chains we were fighting. Now, it’s obviously Amazon, and in some cases the online presences of the publishers themselves.

Bookstore economics are largely concerned with shifting around large amounts of “credit” from publishers. The smaller you are, the tougher that is to do. Stocking every single book recommended by the New York Times is one way of distinguishing your shop, but you might be better off special-ordering those titles when requested and using your funds to develop a niche where you’re not in direct competition with major retailers. Besides, most independent bookshops are so small now that they couldn’t stock all the books mentioned in the Times if they wanted to. Most are too small to contribute to the sales reports that make up the Times bestseller lists, or to influence which books get continued press coverage. Independent bookshops don’t ignore the Times. They just have to carefully select the titles they know will have appeal to their regular clientele, and which might have a chance to sell if they’re still on the shelves after that issue of the Times Book Review has expired.

A well-curated stock of mysteries—or histories, or whatever genre suits the community—where customers learn to trust the tastes of the curator, can be worth much more in the longterm than a stack of Times-reviewed tomes where the recommendation has national but not necessarily local importance and in which the bookseller might have only casual interest.

When I was in Montreal last summer and expressed amazement to a native there that there were so many small bookshops in the city, he replied “It’s because Amazon doesn’t do a good job with French language books.”

You should not berate your poor local indie bookstore for not carrying the book you read about in the Times. Instead, investigate what they have on their shelves. It’s called browsing, it’s a lost art, and you don’t need a program or guidebook to participate.

Sally and I walked into R.J. Julia Booksellers last Thursday with no idea at all of what books we might buy, or if we might buy any at all. We were vaguely cognizant that (other daughter) Mabel needed the next book in one of one of the Rick Riordan new-myth series; we found what she needed at once, and Sal found two hardcover novels-for-kids for herself. We also got Chris Grabenstein novel (the whole family had enjoyed his Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library), a small book on hummingbirds (we’ve put up a feeder at home), Judd Apatow’s new collection of interviews with comedians, the autobiography of Alice Cooper Group bassist Dennis Dunaway, and a jigsaw puzzle. That’s as wide-ranging a bunch of books as I could possibly hope for in any decent small bookshop. (I browsed hundreds of contemporary novels and classics, but held off buying any of those simply because I’ve got a huge backlog of fiction to plow through at home.)

The next day I was in downtown New Haven, and felt guilty about not buying books even more locally. So I went into Atticus on Chapel Street. There, I picked up Mark Adams’ Meet Me in Atlantis, which has been unavailable at the public library for weeks, and a book I didn’t think I wanted, but realized upon browsing it that I very much did: A. Brad Schwartz’s admirably even-handed and well-researched Broadcast Hysteria—Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.

I don’t let some media talk me out of appreciating other media. I can be distracted, but I make an effort to maintain balance. Books are real, a foundation of my home and life. R.J. Julia and Atticus (and many many other shops) are not to be walked idly by. They are of a fundamentally different character than websites and catalogues, and should be embraced for their knowledge, their sense of community and their unique attachment to the wonders of the written word.