Sunday, May 09, 2004

Look ma, new blog name!

You know how some people have really obscure body hang-ups? Not normal ones, like thinking their thighs are fat or whatever, but strange ones, like not liking their ears or knees or collarbones? Well I have a hang-up about my fingers. They’re really short and stubby, which is kind of to be expected since I'm pretty short and stubby all over, but which still makes me self-conscious. I envy people with long, elegant fingers. So anyway, I don't usually wear anything that calls attention to my short, stubby fingers, which means no nail polish and no funky rings. And that's a shame, because if I liked my fingers, I would definitely be into these, a link I got from the always-fun Not Martha. Maybe they'll branch out into plastic bracelets.

Today brings the news that another left-leaning independent bookstore is closing. It's as depressing as it is predictable.

My first job out of college was selling books at an independent bookstore. Truth be told, it was a pretty awful job. The pay was lousy and the hours were both horrible and totally irregular. It wasn't unusual for me to work until midnight one night and again at eight the next morning. A lot of the customers were pretty obnoxious: smug, powerful, wealthy people who treated booksellers with the casual contempt that I suspected they held for all service workers while simultaneously expecting us to possess a vast store of expertise on every book ever published. The owners subscribed to the weird fiction that the store was a family, not a business, and regularly asked us to do things that might be reasonable to request of your children but were patently inappropriate to expect from employees. There were times when I yearned to work for a faceless corporation where everyone would agree that the employment relationship was mediated by laws and contractual obligations, rather than bonds of affection. Everyone who had anything to do with the place was horribly self-satisfied and convinced of their own superiority to the ordinary book-buying public, a conviction that seemed pretty misplaced, given some of the dreck that they tried to pass off as high-brow literature. And what they couldn't pass off as high-brow, they denied. For instance, they doctored their best-sellers list to hide the fact that The Bridges of Madison County outsold every other novel.

So I don't have a lot of illusions about independent bookstores. I don't think they're some sort of utopian public sphere, never mind particularly nice places to work. But I do think they're important. I'm willing to go out of my way and spend a little more to shop at indies. The point about indies isn't that they're better than Borders or Barnes & Noble. In fact, in some ways they're demonstrably worse: they're less likely to discount bestsellers, and they almost always have a narrower selection. What independent bookstores offer, however, is diversity, and that's really, really important.

If there were no independent bookstores, we would have a situation in which a few major retailers would literally get to decide which books could be published. If Borders, Barnes and Noble, Walmart, and Amazon said that they wouldn't carry a book, there would be no reason to publish it, since there would be no place to sell it. This is a problem because corporate bookstores, like all big corporations, are notably adverse to controversy.

Think about Disney's recent decision not to release the Michael Moore film. Now, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, and I think that Disney is telling the truth about why they made that decision. Disney serves a mass audience, and that audience includes a lot of Republicans. In fact, it includes a lot more people who think George W. Bush is a great guy than people who agree with Michael Moore. It isn't worth it to alienate the 50% of Americans who think Bush is groovy in order to sell tickets to the miniscule percentage of the population who think Moore has something meaningful to say. This is a totally rational business decision. And it's a reason that you don't want the flow of information controlled by people who serve a mass audience.

Niche retailers have the luxury of being offensive. They can put off some people, or even a lot of people, without worrying about losing customers. They don't have to bank on a controversial book being an Ann Coulter-sized bestseller in order to justify the outrage from the other side. Can this be annoying? Sure. There are niche retailers who sell books and movies that I firmly wish did not exist. But it's the only way to ensure that we have any sort of intellectual diversity. Otherwise, we'll get a bit of Ann Coulter and a lot of bland, pseudo-centrist crap that doesn't challenge or offend anyone. Considering how offensive pseudo-centrism is these days, that would be a bad thing.

I don't shop for books at the major chains, but I've been told that at the moment, Borders and Barnes & Noble are actually ok on this score. They'll still carry politically challenging books. I suspect, however, that this is because they still have to compete with the remaining independent bookstores. The chains' trump card is selection, and they need to convince customers that they’re more likely to find what they want at enormous chain stores than at smaller indies. As soon as the indies are gone, however, they'll be free to limit their stock. And at that point, it will be too late to turn to niche independent bookstores that will carry the stuff that we want.

So I'm going to put out a plea to people to support your local indie. If you don't have a local indie, find a nice independent, or better yet independent feminist, bookstore online and order from them.



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