Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bookshops, Amazon, and all that

The ever-delightful Fiction Bitch has a disquieting post about the continuing closure of bookshops in the UK. And this time it isn't the old song about indie bookstores heading south; it is about the closure of 30 Waterstone's stores, and the retrenchment of others into a much more commercial profile. (FB suggests this may in fact expand the niche of indies.)

A Waterstone's spokesperson blames Amazon and the supermarkets. Possibly that's the problem in the UK, but we face a very different problem in Southern California.

Orange County, where I reside, has a population of about 3 million people. I don't think we have a single, general indie bookstore.

Before my bookselling neighbors start writing in to correct me, let me emphasize the word 'general' in the preceding sentence. We have some good specialty shops--a few mystery stores, a couple of SF/Fantasy shops, some naval/marine shops, and probably more Christian bookstores than there are Christians. (My favorite from the phone book is 'House of Bibles'. Fill in the blank: "people who live in Bible houses shouldn't throw.......?" Parties? Matches?) And there are some truly outstanding used-book stores.

But what we have in abundance are chain stores. Within 30 miles of where I sit typing this, there are 19 Barnes & Noble superstores, 14 Borders superstores (and 6 Borders Express stores), and a handful of others (mostly B.Dalton and Waldenbooks, which are owned by--surprise!--Barnes & Noble and Borders, respectively).

Oh, there's some great indie bookstores up in Pasadena and Hollywood--the giant Vroman's and the eclectic Skylight, to name just a couple--but I'm separated from them by approximately 6 million people and a drive of 1.5-2.5 hours.

Since Borders and Barnes & Noble keep most new books on their shelves about as long as a supermarket keeps a head of lettuce in the produce bin, your chances of finding anything you want in these stores are slim indeed--unless what you want is the latest John Grisham. Barnes and Noble is particularly bad about handling books from small presses, and their corporate headquarters must approve stocking books from any publisher, even if the local store wants to sell a title. (Some successful indie presses are still locked out of B&N.)

Amazon may seem like a monster to many bookstore managers, but down here in SoCal the online booksellers are the only thing that makes it possible to buy a wide selection; and they are the only route to finding books from the midlist, which is where most good novels live. is another grand resource, and Powell's has the added advantage of being a wonderful brick-and-mortar store as well. Powell's mighty City of Books in downtown Portland, Oregon, is one of the nation's great indie bookstores, dealing both new and used (and both are available online as well).

Don't get me wrong--I love bookstores, and browsing online will never match the wonder of wandering through aisles of books. But if I had to choose between a world of Amazon only or Barnes & Noble only, I'd choose Amazon in a flash.

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