In what seems an all too familiar scenario, the Toronto Twitter-literati (Twiliterati?) are buzzing about the potential closure of yet another indie bookstore. People are bummed, and yet mobilizing. But beyond the usual empathy for those who may lose their livelihoods, it seems many are also sad to see what feels like another sign of the decline of independent publishing – and perhaps ‘book culture’ too.
Whether or not this is true – if in fact it’s harder to publish now; that less books are published; or that less people read today – is a discussion for another day. For now, the right question to ask seems to be this: what do we lose or gain if and when the indie bookstore becomes a thing of the past?
The benefit of the indie bookstore is – or perhaps was – very much about the ‘indie’ part of its name: it carried books you wouldn’t find at your local Chapters or Borders because they would sell too few copies to be economically viable to those large chains. That advantage has, of course, since evaporated. Though the economic benefits of the long tail may be up for debate, it’s clear that it’s often easier and cheaper for most people to find an obscure book online than schlep one’s way to a small bookstore.
But moreover, when Pages, perhaps the most prominent Toronto indie bookstore, closed earlier this year, it was clear that people weren’t simply sad about the loss of a place to buy books. Rather, it was that Pages was also a focal point for literary culture, deeply invested in both the book as an idea but also as genuine part of people’s lives. Pages ran reading series and supported both independent authors and presses to an impressive degree. To lose it wasn’t just about a bookstore; it was about a losing a home for books in a big, techno-friendly city.
But at the same time, the shutdown of these stores and the ensuing reaction also reveals the centrality of ‘the shop’ and ‘commerce’ to book culture. Without these stores, the community of independent presses and their readers – the people who, to deliberately invoke a mostly false dichotomy, read literature rather than romance novels, poetry rather than gossip blogs – have no place to meet.
To try and position this as some kind of marker of the inherent capitalist corruption of ‘like everything man’ would, of course, be naive. The indie bookstore forms an important node in the economic network that sustains independent publishing, providing a distribution point for a variety of small, often economically tenuous presses, while quite literally forming a physical place for aggregating both financial and cultural transactions that support ‘the industry’. This is the simple materiality of, well, everything.
But if the small book shop had two advantages – a specialized inventory and a dedicated community that it both relied upon and nurtured – and we know one is gone for certain, then are what the options in the face of an economic and possibly cultural inevitably?
Well, I have two suggestions, both of which are probably completely naive and idiotic. But stupid ideas are what the internet is for. So:
- The standalone indie bookstore ends in favour of the indie bookstore-slash-coffee shop/bar/clothing store/dry cleaner/dog grooming salon/whatever. I know, I know – but this is the new media shtick, right? When the marginal cost of something falls to zero – or people just start buying from elsewhere or not at all – you produce a new revenue stream by encouraging spending on once peripheral things. If the indie bookstore’s specialization is no longer a unique value, it seems that its capacity to foster a community of readers still is. So, in some sense, I mean ‘coffee shop’ or ‘bar’ somewhat metaphorically; all I’m saying is give people a reason to gather that also produces a new, supplementary revenue stream.
- ‘Course, if that now-hackneyed idea fails, there is always this: the increased cultural import of the library – not just as a place for kids to study or old people to learn how to use Google, but as a place that serves as a cultural home for literacy and literature. The benefit here is that you have a space that does not, in explicit terms anyway, run by strictly capitalist principles of supply & demand. Author readings, book sales etc. could be motivated less by market reactions and ‘saleable ideas’ than literary innovation (which, one hopes, will also sometimes be about form rather than simply content).
Naturally, this is partly motivated by my enjoyment of drinking various beverages with literary types (’cause apparently, I don’t do that enough?). But it seems that even if, through the rise of the web and ebooks, reading itself becomes less attached to the physical, it stands to reason that communities of readers are less likely to become equally ‘immaterial’.
We need a place to hang out, right?