Cavanaugh on the radio right now

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I'm doing a show called These Days on San Diego's NPR affiliate KPBS, discussing Laura J. Miller's book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Listen in live on the web, or if you're in America's Finest City, tune in to 89.5 FM.

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  1. I can’t imagine reading 300+ pages of what I am going to guess is basically a bitch list by people in the industry.

    From the book jacket: “All of these changes have met resistance from book professionals and readers who believe that the book business should not be captive to market forces”

    This is exactly why so many independents went out of business. They weren’t business people, they just liked books. Bookstores are very labor intensive and most common thing said by a new bookstore owner is probably “I didn’t know how much work was involved”. It’s great to find something you are passionate about but you have to be realistic too.

  2. Well, there’s more than that, temujin334, but a lot of the book is like that. I mean, we’re almost ten years past You’ve Got Mail. Is there really anything new to say on the topic of chains vs indies?

  3. What are these “bookstores” you speak of? Were they like Amazon for cavepeople?

  4. Well, I didn’t get to hear the show but I really don’t know what else the book could contain. I worked various areas of bookselling and it was the same stuff said from day 1 to the day I left the last position related to it. You hear it whenever you get more than a few booksellers together.

    Everybody thinks their situation is so unique. Just because they sell books instead of music, hardware or whatever doesn’t make your cause noble or your failure tragic.

  5. Tim,

    The people who work in independent bookstores tend to be like bibliophile versions of the characters in High Fidelity. Good a good lefty going about the joys of going to a book stores that were “temples for the learned” and “where the people worked there did so because the loved books” and try to contain your gag reflex.

    Jay Nordlinger at National Review talks about this book store in Ann Arbor where he grew up called the Little Professor. It wouldn’t carry any books by writers it deemed politically incorrect, i.e. no Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, Hannah Arrendt etcetera. Nordlinger calls the place the “Little Oppressor” book store.

  6. There is one interesting element to the book, though. Miller is a sociologist, and she’s aware that the lamentations of people at places like The Little Oppressor are primarily emotional and not necessarily tied to any reality. She’s studying the perception more than arguing that it’s true.

    That having been said, Miller does tend to support a view that the market is a competitor to culture rather than culture’s best friend. She also treats “common interest” and “individuality” as the same thing, and downgrades the massive increase in cultural opportunities in the last ten years to the level of mere “convenience.”

    To counter that, for the many lucky people who didn’t listen to the show, I gave the examples of a bunch of American women writers (Maria Cummins, Fannie Hurst, and Rona Jaffe) who were really popular in their day but are forgotten now. Fifteen or even ten years ago, you would not have been able to come across even one of their books in your local chain, indie bookstore, or public library-and these books are real, informative social/historical artifacts. Now, you can look any of them up on ABE and get more than a hundred returns. I say if the only lesson you get out of that is that it’s now more convenient to shop online, you’ve missed something central to what makes a culture rich.

  7. i like indie bookstores, even the lefty ones.

  8. Given that it was an independent bookseller (Tattered Cover) that went to the mat for privacy rights of its customers here in Colorado, I will always be sympathetic to them: http://www.freeexpression.org/newswire/0408_2002.htm

    Is there any doubt that Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc., would have just forked over the customer records in a second?

  9. Tim,

    I think some of that is that people like Miller never lived outside of the places like New York and Berkley back in the pre Amazon, Barnes and Noble days and have no idea how much it sucked out in the hinterlands. Not only was it hard to get the books you wanted, you also never heard about a lot of books so you didn’t even know to read them. She has no clue that the rest of us didn’t have a fabulous independent bookstore down the street. We had B.Dalton if we were lucky. The cultural net increase from Amazon is amazing. Not only do you get Amazon matching books to your interest, you have all of the readers putting up lists. Twenty years ago, if I wanted to read about say Medieval Christianity, the best I could do was go to the local book store and brouse and maybe find a few general interest books or if I lived in a large city go to the local library and find a few. Now, I can go to Amazon and 100 different people who are into the subject have lists telling me the best books about the subject which I can purchase right there.

    I hate to be a cynic, but I can’t see any reason why someone like Miller would think that is a bad thing other than that she is just an elitist and it bugs her that the nobodies of the world can now read whatever books they want.

  10. DHex,

    I don’t mind indy bookstores either. I am just not going to give up my Amazon or big chain store in order to keep them in business.

  11. One point to keep in mind, John, is that Amazon is frequently getting those books on Medieval Christianity from indies (or at least was before The Da Vinci Code suddenly turned everybody in America into a medieval history buff). It’s too simple to say the indies are competing with the internet in the same way they’re competing with the chains, and there’s some good evidence that the chains are taking even more of a licking from online retailing than the indies are. The ABA, for example, is now reporting sales data from members who do less than $100k in annual business: Those are clearly not people who have storefront operations with employees; they’re online-only plays. I don’t know where Miller falls on this issue. (I got called to do the show late yesterday and only had a couple hours to read her book.)

    Anyway, I invited Miller to come over to this thread and speak for herself, and I hope she’ll do so.

  12. True enough Tim. I certainly wouldn’t lift a finger to save the chains from online competitiong, although the chains make so much money from things like coffee and postcards I doubt they are in much danger.

    Also I want it noted that my reading taste in Medieval Christianity has nothing to do with that stupid book.

  13. Did Nordlinger claim that Little Professor is an indie? It’s a chain.

    (Or was a chain — I have no idea whether it’s still around.)

  14. No he didn’t Jesse, I just assumed it was. I didn’t know it was a chain. He might not either. He just claimed it was a book store in Ann Arbor.

  15. It wouldn’t carry any books by writers it deemed politically incorrect

    This isn’t to pick on you John, or really most posters here, but how come when the right does the same sort of thing it’s painted as an expression of their right to not sell books they philosophically disagree with? I don’t mind a bookstore with a point of view. If I owned a bookstore I might refuse to sell Michelle Malkin’s book on the grounds that I don’t want to help her make a buck.

  16. Brian,

    You would have every right to do that. I don’t think that is anyway to run a bookstore. I would carry it all. Who cares if Malkin or some moonbat like Michael Moore makes a buck? That saying you won’t carry Malkin is a little different than not carrying the Road to Serfdom or The Origens of Totalitarianism. Strictly speaking, you are right, it is a free country and you can carry anything you like. I just would hope that the all book sellers would choose to carry all books regardless of politics.

  17. I like the independent bookstores, the chains, and Amazon. Go figure 🙂 We have a great (and quite large) independent in St. Petersburg called Haslam’s (pathetic web site, though), and I’d be very distressed if it closed its doors. There are a few other smaller ones over on this side of the bay that I regularly visit, as well.

    Bibliophile that I am, I toyed with the idea of buying or starting a bookstore. From my research, it sounded like an independent bookstore was still a viable business option, provided that the owner was willing to engage in some serious e-commerce. Using eBay, direct on-line sales via your own web site, and, of course, Amazon’s Marketplace of Sellers (or whatever it’s called now) are all critical to your success. I recall some experts stating that you needed something between 30-40% of your sales to be on-line to make a profit. I personally think that carrying specialty books and branching out into the caf? business are good ideas, too.

    Another key to an independent bookstore is being good at acquiring the books in the first place. That’s not easy, and requires some serious legwork. Of course, once you get successful enough, you can acquire a lot of books from your customers. Half-Price Books does a good job of this (although it’s getting positively chainish with over 80 locations).

    Another independent I use at a distance is Powell’s, which is one of the largest if not the largest used bookstores. They’ve been a good source for me for more obscure books, especially nonfiction.

  18. Pro,

    I have had great luck at Powells as well. Since I am a total hardcover snob, Powells is very valuable in getting hardcovers of books Amazon only has the soft covers of and you have to love the Powells store cats.

  19. I worked at a Little Professor for close to three years in Morris Plains, New Jersey after graduating college with a History degree. This must have been like from ’92 to ’95. Little Professor is (was?) indeed a chain, but the franchise owners seemed to make all the decisions about purchasing, what to promote, etc. Unlike the one John says Nordlinger wrote about, the owners where I worked were pretty conservative, and this had some effect on what they chose to sell. For example, if we got any of those Playboy special magazines I wasn’t supposed to put them out.

    I found that working at a bookstore for minimum wage was not so bad; the owners worked pretty hard, but I spent lots of time just leaning on the counter reading books and magazines. I learned how to gift wrap quickly and neatly (if the gift is shaped like a book) and I bought alot of books with my 30% employee discount.

    That store has been closed for years; I don’t think it survived more than a few years after I moved to New York to go through the motions of attending grad school and drop out after two years.

  20. John,

    I distracted a little from my point with my (mostly facetious) point about Malkin. I hate her like poison, but I am for all viewpoints being heard . . .

    My problem is with the phrase “politically correct.” I’m not sure why, when someone on the left only allows one point of view, it’s called enforcing “political correctness,” while when somebody on the right does it this term isn’t used. Can anybody explain? As far as I can see there are opinions “beyond the bounds” for both sides.

  21. Yeah, Powell’s is great. I get a daily newsletter on nonfiction books from them–I don’t always read it, but when I do, I’m always interested in what they have to say. If I ever go to Portland, I’ll definitely be paying them a visit!

  22. Nordlinger was probably referring to Nicola’s Books, which used to be a Little Professor franchisee.

  23. About High Fidelity. If anyone is going to America’s Finest city, instead of phoning themselves there, there is a great independent record shop, Lou’s, in Incensenitas, just west of the 5, on the coast highway, just a couple hundred feet north of Leucadia.

  24. Books are so 20th century.

  25. …and just so no one gets lost looking for a record store, the town is called “Encinitas”. I can vouch for Lou’s having been there last time I was in San Diego.

  26. The Server Squirrels ate a long post I sent yesterday, but AFAIK, Little Professor was/is a chain on the franchise model. It seems they have morphed from the Rexall of bookselling into a firm that services independent stores.

    Nordlinger’s article actually called the store he complained about “Little Suppressor.”

    Kevin
    (20-year vet of the Bookstore Wars)

  27. I’m not sure why, when someone on the left only allows one point of view, it’s called enforcing “political correctness,” while when somebody on the right does it this term isn’t used. Can anybody explain? – Brian24

    The cant that “So-and-so isn’t politically correct” has its origins in the factional infighting of Marxist sects in the 20th century.

    Having been used in Marxist-Leninist vocabulary to describe the Party Line following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the term was transformed and used jokingly within the left by the early 1980s, possibly earlier. In this context, the phrase was applied to either an over-commitment to various left-wing political causes, especially within Marxism or the feminist movement; or to a tendency by some of those dedicated to these causes to be more concerned with rhetoric and vocabulary than with substance. From:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politically_correct

    I can actually remember seeing leftist graffiti back in the early 70s that used the term non-ironically.

    Kevin

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