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March 24, 2009

New York Times on the closing of an Independent Bookstore. Does Local Matter?

A great article in the New York Times today—combining great writing, good information, objective reporting and a personal, distinct point of view. Excerpt.

…what’s remarkable about the Second Story Book Shop is not that it is closing, but that it hung on for 37 years with the same ownership, begun, as the owner, Joan Ripley, reminded customers in a farewell letter, in the year Apollo 17 returned from the last moon landing and a new car cost $3,853.

That, of course, was long before the big-box stores and megachains, before Amazon.com and digital downloads, before Facebook and e-mail sucked people into their computers day and night, before owning a local bookstore became like driving the wrong way on the interstate even when the economy was strong.

It’s not a new story and not an unambiguous one. Was there ever a golden age of fabulous independent bookstores owned by committed bibliophiles? In some big cities and college towns, maybe. In most suburbs and small towns, no. If you’re an author, Amazon is the greatest thing ever in terms of keeping your book alive and giving it a shot at finding an audience. If you’re a reader, few people had options as good as the Borders and Barnes & Noble stores that became the face of bookselling — even if Wal-Mart, Costco and Amazon are eating them up too.

Local bookstores can seem like quaint throwbacks, but there’s more than nostalgia. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent booksellers, now includes about 1,500 businesses at about 2,500 locations. Twenty years ago, it was 4,700 at about 5,500 locations.

“Our customer count is so far down, and I attribute that mostly to Amazon, and then you have the double whammy of the economy,” said Mrs. Ripley, 75, who began the shop above a shoe store (hence the name) and then moved to a spot off Chappaqua’s main drag, where it has operated with a devoted, knowledgeable staff and, out front, a weird totemlike figure of a gnomish man holding a stack of books.

“Especially for younger people, it’s like a game now: You look on the Internet and find where you get something for $10.29 here instead of $10.39 there. We can’t compete with that, but there are things you lose in ways that are not numerically measurable when a place like this closes,” she said.

Second Story has been on the brink for a while and might yet manage a third incarnation as a book club sans storefront or as a part of a local antique shop. It might not have lasted this long if the Clintons had not moved to town in 2000. A book signing for Bill Clinton’s autobiography in 2004 sold 3,500 copies, bringing in the equivalent of more than three months’ revenue in a single day…

…And most of them, whether explicitly or implicitly, have managed to get across the message that we need you, but you need us: A community that wants a vibrant downtown with a local bookstore that’s about books, and about something more as well, needs to support it. So, in New Canaan, Conn., for example, Elm Street Books exists because seven local residents put up the money to keep it going, more as a civic gesture than an entrepreneurial one.

There’s so much noise in American life that we tend to hear only the loudest: Obama-mania! A.I.G. Mania! March Madness!

Way down on the decibel scale is a buy-local movement struggling to be heard. On the Internet, in small business groups, even from groups focused on local bookstores (www.indiebound.org) its message is that if people want local stores, a downtown that’s vital, they should shop there, even if they can get the Tylenol cheaper at Target and the John Grisham book cheaper at Amazon.

Nothing is forever, certainly not an independent bookstore. A lot of things killed our bookstore, including the terrible economy and the incessant information overload that makes reading a book like a quaint rite from the past. But if we lost it out of indifference, or to save a buck or two on Amazon, we lost a lot more than we saved.

E-mail: [email protected]

For the whole article, click here to go to the Times’ article (the above is just an excerpt)

The above closing is a great reminder of the power of our dollar. Do we spend it selfishly, simply looking for the best deal? Makes sense, on some level. Or do we treat our hard-earned dollar as a long-term force for good—our own and our society’s? Do we support local, independent business or just the most efficient, professional business—say CostCo or Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble?

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