NEW YORK, February 13, 2013 - It wasn’t news to me when I heard that Barnes and Noble was fading out by reducing its number of book stores, some here, some there, some everywhere, gradually over the years. We heard the same story from Borders, that it was phasing out to get more lean and mean and competitive, at least until all the lights went out.
I’ll trust my well-read, well-educated readers to please search elsewhere for the numbers, the statistics and for the generalities. From me you will get it factually, first-hand and personal. First off, we did not desert them. They deserted us, and no amount of lattes can make the difference.
Travel back with me to the time a young writer (me) got his first book published and in print, in this case, The Horsemen. Imagine the excitement when the reviews came in, all of them five stars in today’s speak. Back then, and not so long ago, there was television, even telephones, but there were no iPhones, nor were there e-books.
So book stores were our first and last resort. We follow this young writer as he hunts down one book store after another to find his book surely stacked up high. After all, the reviews! He travels throughout the East Coast and not one, not a single book store, heard of him or his marvelous book, and from the chains here was the answer…
“We only carry bestsellers.”
Really! Now how does a book become a bestseller unless it can get sold, and if it isn’t being carried it can’t get sold, and therefore it can’t become a bestseller, right? You the writer, and you the reader, are sunk at the start. We never had a chance to meet. Hello, goodbye and get back to your vampires.
We have arrived at the perfect Catch-22, speaking of books…and speaking of books, most of us speak and read in English. Why can’t those managers and clerks do the same? I’m talking about the chains, not the privately owned shops, where it is so different, God bless them. No, on my rounds from one chain store to the next, English is a foreign tongue, on the part of the clerks.
I generalize here, and am sure to hear otherwise, but that is the case if not always, then often enough.
Move along with me to a more recent time, and this time I have a legitimate bestseller, and I won’t mention the name so you won’t think I’m self-promoting. This book has been made into smash box-office hit. At the same time as the movie, the book is selling like crazy overseas; millions of copies are being spread out across more than 22 countries on all continents.
Must be doing sensationally here as well, no?
Here comes a phone call from a reporter at the LA Daily News, which goes something like this: “We’ve put our entire staff to the phones to call every book store in the region, and not a single one carries your book. How is this possible? Your book and movie are the hottest thing going. Do you know what’s going on?”
No I didn’t, so I did my own sleuthing. I visited ALL the book stores in the Philadelphia region, the chained ones, and all of them said that oh yes they’d heard of the movie but never the book. This part is still funny – though not back then – when I got into an argument with the manager of that book store in Center City; now out of business, naturally.
Manager: There is no such book.
Me: Yes there is.
Manager: No. No such book. Only movie. No book.
Me: I WROTE THE DAMNED BOOK!
Gradually, despite everything, the novel began selling big here as well, and I emphasize, despite everything, including neglect from the publisher.
Here’s what else I found while doing my rounds. Nobody cared. Nobody gave a damn. Nobody (except for a few places) said, “Let me look it up.” I found these book store chains to be inhospitable and uncaring and not just for me, but for all customers in search of a good read and a friendly reception.
Is it the pay? Most likely the typical book store clerk gets about the same salary he or she would get at McDonald’s, inviting the same kind of love and care.
Here’s what happened. At the height of the booming 1980s, the chains came, driving out Mom and Pop. The chains began merging and conglomerating. They got bigger and bigger and as they got bigger they got monotonous and sterile. People got hired who didn’t or couldn’t read a single book in the entire place.
They didn’t care if you bought a book or if walked out empty-handed. The boss wasn’t around and he or she, miles away, up in corporate headquarters, cared nothing for you, your love of books, but cared only for your bottom line. The chains were run not by book lovers, but by accountants.
Frankly, it is Amazon that came to the rescue. No, Amazon did not drive out book stores, as has been alleged. As I’ve just said, the conglomerating and the sterilizing and the sickening conformity had begun well before Amazon came along in the mid-1990s. So, thankfully, we’re being served and saved only by Amazon and the independents, who are bound to live and thrive as the dinosaurs die out.
Keep the books, they said, forget the cappuccino.
Jack Engelhard is a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, bring his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe.
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