Curious Rat

On Independent Bookstores and Small Businesses

I've done my best to avoid buying e-books lately, unless a title fits any one or more of the following criteria:

  • It's huge and I don't want to lug it on the subway every day.
  • It's embarrassing to read in public.
  • It's not something I'm keen on finding space for within my limited shelf space at home.

I own Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography on my Nook because it's a larger tome and not something I want to carry everywhere.

However, I've recently been acquiring paper books more frequently and whenever possible, from an independent bookstore. I know I won't find the kinds of sales I would at a Barnes & Noble or an Amazon, but I'm okay with that.

For me, it's about supporting small businesses and their passionate, knowledgable staff. As someone whose family owns a small music store and studio, I see the problems large chains create. It's nice that the Fender Strat you just bought only cost you three hundred dollars, but can the angsty teenager who sold it to you tell you the differences between an American-made and a Mexican-made one? Can he recommend any good guitar method books to start you out with (that is, if Guitar Center actually sold sheet music)? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Small businesses are often run by people who have enthusiasm and love for what they're selling and, if you're lucky, know the inventory better than the chains do. Music stores like ours are typically owned and operated by musicians. Small book stores are run by voracious readers, or even writers, or editors. They're the ones with answers to the hard questions, like "What can you recommend for a die-hard mystery fan?" and "I want to get into fantasy novels, where's a good place to start?"

Unfortunately, our desire for convenience and instant gratification has taken its toll on the independent book sellers trying to compete with franchises and Kindles. I have nothing against Amazon or Barnes & Noble and if there's something I absolutely need right away, I'll get it from them, but when I can help it I prefer to support a local business.

So, what are independent bookstores doing in order to remain relevant?

According to a recent story on NPR, some are actually selling e-book readers in their stores, while others have taken a more…ahem, novel approach (commence groaning):

"I think the smarter publishers are realizing that the way the physical book matters is in the design of it," says Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, one of the founders of Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore. She says Greenlight has started a First Editions Club for customers who want to build their own collection of books that will last.

"It works a little like a wine of the month, or a chocolate of the month club," she says. "You sign up for a six-month or a 12-month subscription, and then the booksellers at Greenlight will select new titles — fiction or nonfiction — that they think are great and might be valuable in the long term, and subscribers get a first edition of that book signed by the author.

Looking for a great holiday gift for the reader in your life (like the proprietor of this here blogging establishment)? A First Edition Club membership is perfect and it reiterates why small businesses are so essential to our society.

This isn't a homogonized list of titles sponsored by a particular publisher. It's not something a large chain is doing to seem more "artisanal" to a hodgepodge of demographics.

This is a carefully curated list of titles hand-picked by the folks at Greenlight Bookstore who have arranged for club members to possess true keepsakes they can read and enjoy and display on their shelves.

A small business isn't always defined by what it's selling. It's often defined by the experiences, the people and the community that surrounds it. There's a joy that comes from a small business owner recognizing you and saying, "Hey, Harry, got that new Lawrence Block book in. I set a copy aside for you," or "I noticed your tire needed a patch job while I was doing your oil change, so I took care of it for you. No charge."

When business owners take the time to get to know their clients, those clients remain loyal. At Barnes & Noble, I'm just another customer in the checkout line, even if I'm there every day. That's not the case at my usual mechanic's shop, nor my local indie bookstore, and that's definitely not how we treat our regular customers at the Music Center.

I'm not going to go on a righteous tear about not supporting chain stores because, let's face it, convenience is nice. I enjoy not having to hunt for something as much as the next guy and if I can save a few dollars here and there, great.

But I also want to get personal recommendations for books I haven't read and I want my car looked at with the same level of care as a BMW. I want the extra few dollars I'm spending on a guitar to go right back into the store I'm buying it from.

Frequenting a small business makes me feel like an investor in the integrity of a community, and it's a feeling that can't be replicated by a Barnes & Noble in every shopping center.