Friday, January 14, 2011

Unanswered Questions

"What books do you have in Estonian?"


I'm sorry, did that seem harsh? Had that question at the bookstore this past week. That was my answer. None. You want to know who else doesn't have much in the way of Estonian literature? Eliot Bay Book Company, Third Place Books,, Barnes & Noble, Borders, the Seattle Public Library, or anyplace else I've subsequently looked online. Anton Hansen Tammsaare, it would seem, is perhaps Estonia's greatest novelist. Never translated into English. So no, we have no books in Estonian. Again, so sorry.

The customer may not have believed me when I said so, but I really am sorry that we haven't anything in Estonian, or even, so far as I could find, anything translated from Estonian. I've had a think about this. The bookstore where I work is the oldest independent bookstore in the city, probably in the region, both of which are known to be crowded Northern Europeans, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, and yes, although it's never come up before, there must be folks from the Baltic states as well; Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians. More than a million people speak Estonian, and I should think some of them are doing it Seattle as I write. Seems a shame to have nothing of the kind at the bookstore, to not even know where else to suggest someone should look, to never have heard of a single Estonian poet, or be sure of anything beyond having a couple of dictionaries or travel books, and perhaps something instructional on CD?

Yet, that's the way it is, and has been and probably will be. This can not be the first time that customer has asked about Estonian books and been met with blank denial. So why then, that rather smug frown, from the Estonian and his lady friend? Did I misinterpret, or did I not get a hint of dismissal, suggesting that the bookstore had somehow failed to fulfill it's promise? Or was it just a skeptical response to my own certainty? How would I know, without checking the computer, that the bookstore had nothing? I did check the database. I did try to explain that the little we carry in languages other than English was confined mostly to French, German, Italian and Spanish, and then mostly just a few major classics in each? Of Scandinavian and Slavic literature in the original, even Russian, have we none.

Earlier in the same week, arriving with a different customer at the two shelves of books in French, I was asked if this could possibly be all that we carried in that most perfect of European languages? It is, and until that moment, I'd actually been rather proud of our selection. It's true, the section probably isn't what it was ten, or even five years ago, but Molière is still there, and Proust, and Camus. If Racine isn't, if Claudel is absent, etc., is there not something to be said even for having what we do? To whom, after all, did I last sell a book by Claudel, in French or out?

I'm beginning to think I'm wrong, that booksellers are wrong, to still think this way. It is an old fashioned idea; that bookstores, the best ones anyway, or at least the largest ones, ought to have something of everything, or at least something of everything that might have a customer come looking for it, at least in, say, French. That ideal was never met, by any bookstore, even the greatest bookstores of the last century, and yet it was a fundamental principle of what made, for most us, even those of us like me who can read nothing but English, a general bookstore great; a selection of the best books available, on as many topics, in as many languages, and from as many times and places as could be made to fit inside the building. However infrequent the visitors to sections like the Foreign Language shelves, a proper bookstore really should at least have Camus in French, no? Well, no.

Because there are now better means for customers to find these books, to find any book the customer may need or about which they may simply be curious, than by going to a bookstore. Shall we just admit as much?

A major show of Picasso has been in town, and has been packin' 'em in, for months. We had a display up for a good, long while, of books about Picasso: biographies, monographs, new and used books, famous and obscure books, and we would seem to have sold not a few of these. When a customer the other day asked me to recommend a book on Picasso I did not even look at the inventory. With every confidence when I walked him to the section, I assumed I would find all three of the volumes by John Richardson waiting on the shelf, at minimum. What I found was not a single book, new or used, in the Art History section, and only one book, used, among the monographs. I refused to believe that this could be true. I remembered the recently dismantled display, and left my customer waiting while I went of to find the books I remembered. I searched high and low, I harassed coworkers, assuming all the while that I simply wasn't looking in the right place. After I'd finally gone back to the sales floor and found my customer gone, a bookseller brought me one volume of the Richardson biography, from off of a cart of books to be reshelved. I blushed with embarrassment, for myself and the bookstore. Seemed disgraceful to me at the time that so good a bookstore as the one in which I work should have little or nothing in stock on the greatest artist of the last century. How could such a thing have been allowed to happen? Even if we'd sold everything from off that display, surely we must have reordered something? There must be some such explanation. The books were on reorder, having sold so well in December?

How many titles on Picasso, do you suppose, my customer went home to find available on his computer?

The reality is that I lost that sale for two reasons, neither of which had anything to do with the bookstore's inventory. The first is that I don't work in that bookstore anymore, if I ever did, and the other is that it seems I still think I do. Economic necessities are changing the way bookstores, even the best bookstores can and must do business. The idea that any bookstore can have, or can get any book for any customer on nearly any subject are over, not because we can't and not because we are unwilling to try. The expectations of how this should work, and how long this should take, are radically different than what they were even when I started working in bookstores a scant quarter of a century ago. The world around us has changed in ways we could not have anticipated. The ways people buy books, and why they buy them, and from whom, and how and in what format they read them, all of this has changed, and yet our model of how books are and ought to be sold, to whom, and at what cost, is all but identical to the business I learned 24 years ago. Like most people in the business of selling books, and here I would include publishers and even writers, I can't help but find these changes bewildering. It's true that bookstores, the best ones anyway, have embraced all kinds of technological change in my time. The first bookstore I managed had, for example, an excellent card-catalogue-inventory-system, if you can believe it. I don't know a bookstore still in business that didn't abandon distributors' microfiche and subscriptions to the printed edition of Books in Print as soon as there were viable alternatives available. I don't know of one bookstore, of any size, that hasn't yet created some kind of presence online.

And yet, for all our confidence in our own expertise and our faith in customer service, the business of selling books as we have always done, even with these marvelous new tools, would seem to be failing us, and our customers, more and more with each passing day. Innovations in everything from information storage and access to shipping and pricing would seem to be happening all around us, every blessed day, and the industry would seem to be thinking of little else but how to find a way to survive in the face of these global changes, and yet, our business can not quite seem to change fast enough, can not quite keep up, can not really even maintain the standards we still insist will save us.

Perhaps then, we ought to stop trying to keep up. That's what I'm beginning to think, anyway. A great deal of time over the past few years has been, to my mind, wasted on trying to find a way to get in on the money to be made from the new reading devices and and the millions of dowloadable titles to which the users of such devices now have all but instant access. Among booksellers -- and I should think most traditional publishers -- if one wants to piss in the punchbowl at any industry gathering, all one really has to do is suggest casually that the Kindle is a remarkably good idea, precisely because there is no way, so far as anyone I know in the business has yet to suggest, for anyone in the business, other than writers, to make much money from it. After a stony silence or two, and a few grudging expressions of admiration for the Wizard of and the rest of the new entrepreneurs, the discussion, if any, is likely to devolve into a defense of our grand tradition of individual and community service, and an increasingly unreassuring, and vague, conversation about "atmosphere," and the aesthetics of the book "as object," before the topic is either dropped or the conversation becomes uncomfortably heated and irrational.

I know, because I've had that conversation many times, and I've often as not been the irrational party, making just those same tired points, ad nauseum , even to myself.

But are we still what we imagine ourselves to be? Do we still represent the standard of customer service? What we would seem not to have done is answer such questions honestly. If we were to do so, I think we would now have to admit that no, there are now faster, less expensive, and yes, frankly better ways to buy all sorts of books, most glaringly, exactly those kinds of books that independent booksellers have always insisted that we did and would always be better at selling than anyone else: the more obscure technical titles, the most expensive books, the standard student texts, the best books, at a fair price. Any such claims, when even a building code might be had more cheaply and faster from a website, are now, I think we must admit, absurd.

How many years now have we been complaining of unfair discounts and the like to the major chains, the same major chains who are now themselves struggling, even as the independents have been forced to reduce, and reduce again, the depth and selection of their new stock, and using that unfair advantage as the primary explanation for our declining sales of bestsellers and the like? As if the only reason people do not still buy these books from independent bookstores in the same numbers they may once have done is because the customer seems to have failed to fully appreciate how nicely we display these books?

I haven't the answer to saving the independent bookstores in this country, or bookstores, whatever their ownership, as a feature of at least the urban landscape. If I had any such insight, a few million dollars perhaps, and any confidence in my own business skills, doubtlessly I would be setting up shop on my own and setting the world ablaze already, now wouldn't I?

The only thing I might suggest,at least tonight, from the cozy safety of my little bolt-hole, would be that we might be more honest about not only what we are now actually able to do, but what we might do hereafter to prosper in a business that is rapidly being reduced to a specialty, whether we like the sound of that or not. Those arguments so often made amongst ourselves and our most loyal friends, the argument for atmospherics, if I may, and the defense of the aesthetic, what might fairly be called the argument for reaction, or the snob's defense, however tired we all may be of making and hearing them, have, at their core, a truth, if we were willing to face it. What then if we were to abandon any pretense of being either reference libraries or department stores, and invest our expertise and energy into some new idea of what a bookstore may still be, and what a bookstore may still do to attract the kind of people who will still want to spend money in a bookstore? Just what would a bookstore look like that did this?

Well, I think, at least among the largest survivors, there would have to be an Espresso Book Machine, or something very like, to reprint at least some of what either booksellers can no longer afford to keep in stock or publishers keep in print. These out of print books would have to be better made than they now are, by and large, and more attractive, without becoming so expensive to maintain as the backlists which we have struggled so bravely, and perhaps foolishly to keep available. The investment to date has been in the necessary technology, but very little has yet been done to use it to anything like its full potential, or to address those populations likeliest, though they may not yet suspect this themselves, to have need of it. Students, yes, and the local authors and eccentrics like myself are just beginning to appreciate this amazing service, but how many collectors, and specialists and amateurs have yet to hear of what might be printed inexpensively right in the bookstore?

That would be the easiest item on the agenda, I should think, offering something wonderfully new. The harder job would be abandoning our pretensions to being all things to all readers. Where this has left us is with the bums occupying the comfy chairs and the potential customers who can find books in their specialized interests more easily elsewhere, even as the great white whales of American readership drift further and further away from us. It may be time we waved that last reader away and wished them all safe passage. (The bums will be with us so long as we offer centralized heat and those damned armchairs by even a faux fireplace.) I've no idea if I may in fact now not be talking right through my hat, but my instincts as a reader and a bookseller tell me that our best hope is now to be found in embracing the kind of specialities about which we are actually likely to know something, whatever those happen to be from store to store and bookseller to bookseller. What this would probably mean, among other rather terrifying possibilities, is being completely frank about the likelihood of anybody finding books in Estonian, or perhaps even French, anywhere in a bookstore in the United States, not specialized in exactly that. (And good luck to the good soul who opens the first bookstore specializing in Baltic languages, but never mind that now.) The next likely shock, to both the industry and our remaining customers, would be a new and unprecedented frankness about whole categories of publishing like technical and computer books, to say nothing of art monographs and animal husbandry, that might now require either a major commitment of new resources, a specialization in other words, or being abandoned altogether, depending on location and sales and the like. If a bookstore is to have an art section, then it must now have the best art section ever seen, or none at all. Anthropology? Engineering? Woodworking? If there is a bookseller better qualified than a website to sell these books, then perhaps it might behoove the industry, as a body, to throw their whole support to such an enterprise and simply get out of the business of trying, in an industry-wide, increasingly half-assed way to stock and sell such books.

Such specialization would doubtless feel very much like putting all of one's eggs into very small baskets, but at least the remaining baskets would look impressively full, wouldn't they? As it is, too many of us continue to operate supermarkets stocked like farmer's markets -- after market day.

Specialization would also require specialists. The likeliest consequence would be a lot more unemployed booksellers trained, as I was, to be generalists. Gives one pause, that does.

Whatever the eventual outcome, if not of actual specialization, then of at least abandoning the pretense of absolutism, there would be no way to do this well without the expansion of inventories to include used books, remainders and discounted books, as well as locally produced and published books, and a greater representation of small presses and independent publishers. The dependence of local, community bookstores all but exclusively on national and international corporate publishing and distribution is being undermined by new technologies and media even as we continue to invest the vast majority of our limited profits as independent retailers in propping up a business model that has become all but wholly dependent on sales to customers via businesses other than ours. That anyone, even the publishers themselves, or the chains that they helped to build, should still think that The New York Times Best Sellers List will continue to support bricks and mortar bookstores is shockingly silly, it seems to me, even as these ungainly corporate behemoths are being abandoned by their best paid hacks for sweet internet deals and their publicity and marketing departments, their lawyers, and their MBA editors continue to dictate terms to major vendors who shortly may not need them at all. Can anyone think that the next retiring President or Prime Minister, to say nothing of the next starlet promoting her sex scandal or children's book, will earn back their advances in hardcover? Meanwhile, academic presses in particular, but the specialists in publishing in general, -- if that phrase makes any sense to anyone but me --will have to come down from their towers and begin the unhappy business of behaving either like participants in a real economy; in which everyone admits how ridiculous a sixty-five-dollar price on a paperback book is, or that the actual cost of subsidized publishing will have to cease to be treated as immaterial to the cost of books. (Sorry, professor, you may want to set up a website.)

Realistically though, none of this will change overnight or any time soon. Likewise nothing I am probably going to suggest here will happen, or not happen, as a result of me typing madly away tonight. Meanwhile, bookstores will continue to close, and I will continue to keep faith with the business I love, and the only business that might have me, with all my noisy and unproven opinions, no degree, and no investment capital, as best I can.

For my part, I will try not to place any Estonian poets I happen to find on order for stock, or bray too loudly at the disgraceful lack of Picasso books again, at least in front of customers and coworkers. Old habits die hard. Old dogs must learn new tricks.

Meanwhile, here's a lovely old used book of Russian poets, beautifully illustrated and nicely bound, for only seven bucks, with the originals on the facing page, and a gorgeous big discount book, on the Cubists, for less than twenty dollars! Will these do? Or can we interest you in having something printed up for you while you wait?


  1. Dear (heart) Brad,
    Interest and intuition guided me to read your most recent usedbuyer blog entry. I would love to see this post reprinted at Shelf Life and am (with your permission) going to address that with a certain person. Why not, eh?

    I would like to be part of a panel of speakers to address the future of our place of employ. Or maybe I'd be satisfied (just) being a part of the audience:

    "Curiouser and curiouser! I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!"


  2. I find myself restraining myself more and more when I go look for a book and can't find it anywhere. I couldn't find Ginsberg's Howl last month. Not in any form, in any book, in the store. I realize it may be older, now, but I've never known a book store without it.

  3. Dearest Jan as always, thank you.

    As for not finding Howl, how IS that possible?! I know I said I'd try not to blush for what isn't there, but now, really.