I was saddened to learn of the September closing of the Creatures & Crooks Bookshoppe in Richmond, Virginia. As an author, I regret the passing of any bookstore, but I signed at Creatures & Crooks, so I know firsthand what a terrific store it is. And as a bookseller (I own The Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, Arizona), I know how tough it is to toil in the independent bookstore trenches.
I suppose there’s something to be said for every form of bookselling, since they all reach readers. But I genuinely believe that we all lose something when there’s one less indie store out there filling the reading landscape. Independent booksellers, more than most other kinds, hand-sell books, creating new markets for authors, and they’re more likely to host events for new, unknown authors. Independent stores also contain independent selections. Without independent stores of all kinds, we move ever closer to the homogeneous threat of Sameville, USA. In book terms, that means a warehouse store-type choice of what we should all be reading. Great prices, maybe — better retail prices than my wholesale prices in some cases — but a punitively limited selection.
I know not everyone agrees with me. Some people clearly find no value in independent stores. From behind my retail counter, I see those folks occasionally. I live in a town with few chain stores of any kind, and apart from a couple of fast-food places, absolutely no chain restaurants.
Some tourists act as if they’ve been told they’ll have to starve on their vacations, if they can’t eat in the same places they always go to at home, when Sedona offers a large variety of high caliber restaurants of every food variety and price range. I guess when some people get away from it all, they’re not happy unless they can take it with them.
I see a bookstore version of that behavior, too. Those people walk into our store and ask if there’s a Barnes & Noble in town. I always respond by asking conversationally, “Do you think anyone ever asks a Barnes & Noble clerk if there’s an independent store nearby?” They either react to that with confusion or anger, and tell me they just want to find a bookstore that they can browse — and that’s when they’re in a bookstore, and a pretty great one according to most who visit it and the locals who vote on it. One woman recently marched up to my husband and said, “My husband forgot to bring along something to read on his vacation. Is there a Barnes & Noble here where he can buy something?” Some people, while standing in a store filled with books, don’t recognize it as a bookstore if it isn’t patterned along the lines of a chain store.
But too many other people say they love independent bookstores, when they can’t remember the last time they entered one. They love the idea of independent stores. They talk the talk. But when it comes to walking the walk, they seem to regard indie stores like some quaint, old-fashioned piece of an Americana long gone.
Nope, they’re out there, everywhere — mavericks on the road to Sameville.
If you don’t think independent stores serve any useful function, then keep on doing what you’re doing. But if you want them to continue to thrive, start walking the walk.
Drop into that bookstore in your neighborhood that you always drive past, instead of complaining about the limits of the online shopping or that chain store clerks don’t know books. You might be surprised by how good their selection is, how knowledgeable they are about books, and how fast they can get in a special order for you. You won’t pay for shipping, either, and you don’t have to buy extra books you don’t want to get that free shipping. You might find it’s a place you’ll want to visit again. And, at a time when funding for local services are at an all-time low, you’ll be contributing to your local community, something online sales don’t do. When you shop locally, over 60% of your money stays in your community. Even when you shop in the local branch of a national chain, a significant portion of that money goes back to their corporate headquarters.
Or reach across the miles to help the stores that you know support lots of your favorite authors. Even if you can only do it occasionally, order a signed copy of your favorite author’s book from one of the stores supporting that author, instead of getting it from a used seller online, which you know doesn’t help that author one bit.
Authors, you might also consider buying something from the stores that host your signings. I’ve blogged before about the surprises I’ve encountered in author behavior, from my unusual duel vantage point of author and bookseller. That authors almost never support the stores that host them has come as another surprise to me. I’ve almost always bought something from the stores where I’ve appeared, and I assumed everyone else did as well. Wrong! Maybe 3-4% do. About the same number that send a thank-you note.
If you want that store to be there for your next signing, considering dropping a few pennies before you leave. Won’t you need a paperback to read during those lonely nights in your hotel room while you tour? Many stores also offer gift items, some under $5. Our lowest price gift item — a souvenir Sedona bookmark — costs $1. Wait — we even have postcards for a quarter.
Sure, money is tight for everyone today. But we vote with our dollars. We determine the shape of our world with every penny we spend.
If you don’t see any value in independent stores, then just keep doing what you’re doing. But if you do, don’t wait until they’re all gone to lament their passing. Help them thrive now, while you still can.
Farewell, Creatures & Crooks. Thanks for fighting the good fight.