Saturday, January 07, 2012

Are independent bookstores really that important?

When I read that Toronto's oldest independent bookstore was set to close, my first reaction was that it was also the world's biggest bookstore, or maybe one of those places in the Annex. I was wrong, of course, because the answer is The Bookmark on Bloor West in the Kingsway, which has been open for 47 years. My second reaction was to remember Slate's recent look at independent bookstore, where Farhad Manjoo wrote:

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine.


It’s not just that bookstores are difficult to use. They’re economically inefficient, too. Rent, utilities, and a brigade of book-reading workers aren’t cheap, so the only way for bookstores to stay afloat is to sell items at a huge markup...At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.

In response, Will Doig at Salon dismissed Manjoo's argument as "so paint-by-numbers counterintuitive that it almost reads as a parody of a Slate piece":

Manjoo’s argument that bookstores don’t really foster a local literary culture wildly misses the point. They foster a local culture, period. Bookstores provide a space to meet friends, cruise for a date, and hide out when you have nothing to do on a Saturday night. They provide a small slice of intellectual development in a retail landscape that’s otherwise dominated by denim, cupcakes and facial moisturizer. And they do so without asking much in return — just that we come in frequently, browse all we want, and occasionally buy a book at retail price. If people mythologize bookstores, that’s the reason. Rather than look for reasons why they shouldn’t be celebrated, you could just as easily ask why, even in the age of Amazon, they still are.

I enjoyed Majoo's takedown of independent bookstores, but I can't agree. While I'm not in love with independent bookstores, I never buy books online either. I'm aware that prices are cheaper online, but I buy books in person, either on impulse at the airport, or after thumbing through a few at a bookstore. I tend to shop at chain bookstores, which is all you get in Korea with the exception of a few tiny places that sell old, used or specialty (eg English-language, Christianity) books.

What bothers me about Doig's repsonse at Salon is that the functions he and others ascribe to bookstores likely only apply, for them, to independent bookstores. They might romanticize the third space of an independent bookstore where you can sit around doing nothing or to meet someone for coffee, but I suspect that the Starbucks or the chairs at a Chapters probably wouldn't meet with the same enthusiasm. There are other reasons, of course, but many people are uncomfortable with large businesses due to aesthetics.

Personally, I don't care. I used to go to an independent coffee shop in my neighbourhood in Seoul, but then I remembered how good Starbucks coffee is and now I go there (cue the part where someone says that Starbucks coffee isn't 'real coffee' and that real coffee can only be found in some obscure place like...). I regularly go to bookstores in Seoul, usually the Kyobo Books location at Gwanghwamun. I pass about four bookstores on the way, all of which are chains, but I prefer Kyobo because it has the largest selection and also because I like its location next to Gwanghwamun.

Kyobo Books isn't just a chain, it's owned in turn by a large insurance company of the same name. It has a selection of English-language books on philosophy that's easily bigger than the selection you'll see in any Western store. I find, though, that like any English-language bookstore in Korea, it has a heavy tilt towards books about business or economics, as well as best-selling paperback novels.

At any rate, you could easily spend an entire evening at Kyobo, as I certainly have, many times. You could start with dinner in its food court, then get a coffee and walk through the bookstore. At some point you can just get a book and start reading, or just sit down, either on the floor or on a chair, to talk. You'll probably find, like any other public space in Seoul, that it's hard to find a seat. Nevertheless, Kyobo certainly fulfills most of the functions fulfilled by any of the bookstore, except that it lacks indie cred.

Of course, indie cred is mercifully meaningless in Korea, so Kyobo also has a website, which lets you order books from the website to be picked up in the bookstore an hour later. You could technically do the same from the bookstore: find a book you like, use your phone or a computer in the electronics section to order it online, and then wait an hour to pick up your book with a discount.

I have been to many independent bookstores in Toronto and, with the exception of the used-book stores on Yonge Street, I found them uncomfortable and not very useful. Books are hard to find, they're expensive and the community aspect works best if you're very liberal and a certain kind of liberal at that. The problem ultimately is that, with the exceptions of the largest ones like Kyobo or preferably Amazon, only carry what people want to buy.

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