Sunday, January 18, 2009

Further Thoughts on Stacey's Bookstore and the Passing of the Independents

Since my first posting on the sad news that Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco had announced it will be closing in March after 85 years in San Francisco, I've been following the story online and through friends in San Francisco.  On Facebook I was encouraged to discover a "grassroots" effort organizing to "Save Stacey's Bookstore."  I've also heard from many people, online and off, expressing shock and dismay at the news.  On behalf of Independent Booksellers everywhere, let me extend my thanks to all the good people out there who care about where they buy their books and from whom.  What we do, and the opportunity to do it, depends on just such thoughtful, community-minded patrons.  We have always been, and continue to be grateful for your support, and your business.  And if I may still presume to speak for the booksellers at Stacey's, I'm sure they are just as grateful for the many new and familiar voices joining the chorus now rising to try to save that venerable bookstore.

In my reading online, I have also discovered just how many people there are out there who seem to misunderstand the nature of just what it is we do; assuming, for example, that the prices of the books we sell are a matter of choice for independent retailers, that discounts to customers and variety of selection are dictated exclusively, or even primarily by considerations of profit and promotion, and that even the continued viability of independent bookselling is ultimately more a matter of management and competition than it is a matter of cultural or community significance.  Let me try, in my own unbusinesslike way, to address some of these points, as briefly and as well as I can in this space.

Without becoming too mired in the jargon of bookselling and publishing, let me just begin by suggesting that the whole business of books is, has always been, and Gods willing, will always be an irrational, impractical and frankly foolhardy enterprise.  The suggestion that anyone can, or has, or ought to make a proper, well organized, smooth-running machine of Market Capitalism out of writing, printing, publishing or selling books, is as familiar, and touching to booksellers, however humble, as it is to anyone else who may have spent their lives in the service of books.  Many a better man and woman of business than me has been broken on that wheel.  Business, and in particular the business of books, has seen many an entrepreneur rise and fall in the tide of print.  Many have made fortunes, or at least reputations as innovators and great capitalists from books, from the man who opened bookstalls in Victorian train-stations, to the popularizer of classics in paperback, to Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com.   Each is to be well remembered and applauded for their contributions to the culture as well as for their business acumen  and willingness to risk their own and other people's money in such, for the time, questionably profitable gambles.  But for every innovator in publishing and selling, there have always been hundreds or possibly even thousands of less daring souls, readers and retailers, bibliophiles and buyers and tradesmen more like... well, me.

We no more set the price of a hardcover from Random House than we determine the value of Amazon.com stock.  And we live, as do the independent publishers, the freelance writers, editors and translators, and, it would seem, the readers and collectors of less established, or well remembered authors, on the narrow margins of solvency, not because we are reckless or stupid or undisciplined, but because what we love is the company of books more perhaps than we do the business of books, and will, it seems, often as not, sacrifice, to our own ultimate ruin perhaps, the latter to secure the former.

A short discounted title from an academic press on an obscure subject?  But surely, Stacey's must have at least a copy of such a book on the shelf when, and if, the right customer comes in to find just such a book?  Else how will the reader know he or she needs it?  Not one, or even a few of the newest or the best books on Lincoln for the University Book Store, but all the titles we can get that might be worth having when we set up a display table to celebrate the Bicentennial of his birthday, else are we not doing a disservice to our customers and to the writers and scholars who have labored to preserve our history and his memory?

And if we can not discount the New York Times Bestsellers list as a result, or choose to promote our own selection instead... And if we can not sell every bestselling new children's title at prices to compete with Costco, but choose to celebrate the PNBA Lifetime Achievement Award winner Alexandra Day by carrying every available title in multiple copies instead... 

That is the value that is lost in the passing of Stacey's.  Those who criticize or sneer at the incompetence of the independent bookstore in the face of the more elegant and profitable business model of the chain store, or whose purchasing is dictated by the automated suggestions provided by the wizardry of online marketing, rather miss the point.  We do not do this, and Stacey's did not do what they did for 85 years, because we, or they, hoped one day to be rich as the result of of our labour.  We, and they, did and do consider ourselves rich in the books and authors we've known, the customers we've met, the generations whose reading and opinions we've cultivated and cared about, in the culture we've supported and sold.  We simple booksellers, in all our enthusiasm and old-fashioned amateurism, have done what we do because we believe, ultimately, more in the supremacy of the word than the dollar.  

And if that sounds too grand for such as us, perhaps it is.  We are ultimately peddlers, not artists.  But do please at least give us this: should Stacey's, and all like it, be allowed to go, do you really think the world will be a more art-full, or a better place?  Or will it be, simply, a more profitable and convenient market?  Nothing wrong with that, of course.  As you like it.

Meanwhile, my thoughts and my heart go to Stacey's and all who still love the books, and the booksellers therein.  

4 comments:

  1. Hey sweetie! Turn off your comment moderation so you can start a conversation in the comments threads.

    Colleen

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous10:30 AM

    I am a current employee of Stacey's Bookstore. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind & insightful blog comments, the first of which I read only yesterday (1/18) when it was forwarded to me by another ex-Stacey's staffer now living in Texas. It made me weepy.
    Stacey's has been my home for the last 14 years. For the last 2 weeks, we have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy & best wishes from hundreds & hundreds of customers. This has been a pleasant surprise, as Staceys, iconic,venerable 85-year-old institution that it is, has always been a low profile, quiet bookstore. We do not shout. On the other hand, hosting 25-30 author events every month, most well attended, has certainly made us visible, important, to the community of book lovers.
    Let me briefly lay out the primary causes of Stacey's demise. It was a tripple whammy of misfortune. First, predatory pricing by Amazon, and to a lesser extent, the big-box chains. Second, a landlord who was stubborn and simply would not consider any mitigating lease alterations. Nothing. Period. Intractable. Third, the sudden and shocking economic freefall of last October/November left our parent company reeling, and unable to take a longer wait & see stance regarding the future.
    A big empty space will now grace Market Street in San Francisco, surrounded by many smaller empty spaces. And it will probably be a big empty space for a long time. What good is that?
    The clearance markdowns have begun, and I am taking some solace from seeing many faithful customers buying lots of books that they will cherish for years, and they will always remember where & when they got them. Stacey's will be sorely missed. A general summation of many customer comments would be: "Where are we going to go now? There is nothing quite like Stacey's in San Francisco..."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh, this is sad, especially coming so close on the heels of Cody's closing. Wonderful post on the mindset of indie owners. Losing an indie feels to me like losing a favorite author, even if it's somewhere I've never gotten a chance to step inside.

    I've done many bookstore readings/signings at both indies and chain stores, and met sales people at both, and they're a completely different species. Ask someone at Borders for a book and they'll look on their computer. Ask at an indie, and they'll almost always be able to not just tell you about the book, but recommend similar titles and tell you why they love them. It's like the difference between lunching with friends, and lunching with one's laptop.

    Sad day...

    ReplyDelete
  4. A wonderful essay, although I regret the circumstances that drove pen to paper.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for your comment! We love hearing from you.

tell all your friends!