Thursday, March 26, 2009

The State of Bookselling: Hell No, We Won't Go. Gently. Into That Good Night.

In these profoundly uneasy times, no one is left untouched by the economic meltdown that is occurring, including bookstores and publishers. Job elimination is almost a knee-jerk reflex among publishers these days. Publisher’s Weekly gave up keeping up with departing editors, publicists and sales reps. and has instead instituted a regular feature optimistically called “Comings and Goings”. Here, the suddenly jobless can list their new email addresses in the highly unlikely event that some other publisher or box-store will have an opening.

HarperCollins, the publishing arm of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, recently eliminated the Collins in its name along with more than a dozen in its national sales force. Houghton Mifflin announced a freeze on new manuscripts. Borders closed its flagship Chicago store along with several others and is announcing more job cuts as I write this. Hell in a handcart is where everyone is going on their stay-cations this year.

Ironically, independent bookstores have been more or less holding our own. True, some of the greats have become lates, notably: Olsson’s Books and Records in Washington DC, Cody’s and Stacey’s in San Francisco, the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee. Others, like the incomparable Tattered Cover in Colorado, have down-sized. But the American Booksellers Association has seen an uptick in new store openings, a nearly unexplainable phenomenon in this economy. In 2008 the ABA reported the opening of 69 new bookstores-- including two born out of the ashes of Harry W. Schwartz and Puddn’head Books in Webster Groves; and 4 branch stores--including Left Bank Books downtown—in 2008. In fact, we opened our downtown store in the absolute financial nadir of 2008.

You may wonder, are we out of our minds?!?!? Well, yes. But you have to be a little bit crazy to do something wonderful. Independent booksellers are driven almost exclusively by an ill-advised passion for books and an overwhelming desire to keep literary culture alive against all rational odds. To this end, we make financial sacrifices that no other retail business person would tolerate. In fact, I was once told by another book industry professional that I should lead a workshop on tolerating debt, because we at Left Bank Books were especially adept at it. As this economic crisis has deepened, I’ve had a number of conversations with other booksellers and we all agree that the financial freak-out the country is experiencing is, ironically business as usual for us.

But we booksellers are also driven by our passion for the First Amendment and, like librarians, we do not like being told we can’t do something. We have a sense of mission in keeping a literary marketplace alive and thriving and that mission often sees us through when all else tells us to back quickly away. We know in our bones that the health of the arts, of our communities, and even of democracy itself are at risk when there are only a few sources for published material.

To be sure, times are very hard in publishing and bookselling and many of us are hanging by the same fragile threads of hope and determination that you are. But we know that people need more than downloadable digital text in times like these, they need community. More than ever, they need places to go other than the spiritually void halls of the mall. They need interaction that has actual meaning, meaning that lies somewhere between how-much-money-did-I-save and how many Hail Marys should I say this week. Bookstores can play an important role in serving that need.

But bookstores sustained by more than the handful of crazy, under-paid booksellers who keep them open and the customers who love them. Bear with me for a little “comings and goings” of my own.

Writers are the reason we are here at all and Left Bank lost two of them recently whom we considered family: Poet Donald Finkel passed away last November. He was a regular at Left Bank and gave one of his last readings at our store. His books (when in print, grr!) have been a favorite on our shelves. We were always happy to see him and are honored to have been part of his community.
We are also deeply saddened by the loss this year of Jean Hutchison who co-authored a lesbian mysteries series set in St. Louis with her partner Marcy Jacobs under the pen name Jean Marcy. Jean was a dear friend and wonderful writer. She always elevated a conversation and made you feel smarter for having listened. She, along with Jean, always supported Left Bank as their own. We will miss Jean’s intellect, wit, and love.

St. Louis lost another bookseller and culture warrior this month—Marcus Watson—who owned Ujamaa Maktaba, the Afro-centric book and gift shop on Manchester and Newstead. Marcus and I shared state-of-the-industry conversations when we could. His little shop on the corner is one of St. Louis’s virtually unknown treasures. He will be missed.

I will also miss terribly my day-long buying and kvetching sessions with Robin Smith, who was down-sized out of a job by the former HarperCollins last month. Robin has been a mainstay of the local book-pedaling scene for a couple of decades. He’s one of those backroom types not many see but who is essential to the running of the machine. He’s also got a wicked good sense of British humor and we truly hope it will see him and his family through this lean time.

Finally, we say goodbye this month to our beloved and fantastic store manager, Erin Quick, who leaves to say hello to that baby she’s been growing all winter. We are very excited for her and we have no idea how we will manage without her. Please be patient with us while we get up to speed. A new baby in the bookstore family reminds us that out of these worst of times we can always find a best of times to give us hope.

Yes We Can

The people have spoken. We campaigned hard and fast during October, marching through perhaps the worst international economic collapse ever. We asked our Friends for money; we promised to be the best we can be, to serve the people, to assemble a visiting “team” of remarkable thinkers and writers who will challenge, inspire and entertain, to expand our services to a downtown location. We sent out emails asking you to become Friends of Left Bank Books. We invited old Friends to re-up more generously. A couple of weeks after the stock market collapsed, we held a fundraiser with the generous help of our landlord Peter Rothschild and our friends at Duff’s. The results? Nearly one hundred of you responded. We raised almost $14,000!
This vote of confidence was much more than a “bailout”--although it certainly secured our immediate future—it was a huge boost to our battle-sore spirits. Not only did folks join the Friends at generous levels, other folks did what they could by actually spending some portion of their book budgets at Left Bank Books. You have no idea how important that small act is.
Earlier this year we wondered if we could or should keep going. Thanks to your amazing response we don’t wonder if we can. Now we say, “yes we can!” This feels historical. We’re looking to the future, daring to hope for something better. These numbers shatter the “Borders” effect. We see a bright time in literary St. Louis, a St. Louis that not only sees the value in an independent bookstore, it deserves an independent bookstore. It demands an independent bookstore. You demand an independent bookstore! You shall have one.
To be sure, it didn’t look likely. Retail sales in October were the worst in 39 years, according to the ICSC-Goldman-Sachs index. Major retailers reported declines of 10 percent or more. The giant sucking sound in the economy has people preparing for or already in the middle of the worst. What’s odd about this is that while October certainly wasn’t our best month ever, it wasn’t our worst month, either. In fact, thanks to you, our gross income was slightly above last October! If you adjust for the Friends memberships, our book sales were actually down about 11%, echoing the national figures. But since we are booksellers, we consider this business as usual. We’re used to tough times. We know how to hold our breath.
We have no way of knowing what the future brings. We prepare to open our downtown store in cooperation with developer Craig Heller. We continue to make upgrades to our Central West End location so that we can serve 21st century customers in 21st century ways. We will not, as the auto makers have, ask the president-elect to save us from our profligate ways, mostly because our ways have never been profligate, but also because, as independent booksellers, as operators of a small business on Main Street America, that’s simply not what we do. The vertebrae of this country’s economic stability are its small businesses. We don’t normally going around picking your pocket with one hand and asking for a handout with the other.
But even though we don’t know what the future brings, we are willing to take the risk. You’ve asked us to. Thank you, readers, book buyers, and cultural citizens of St. Louis, for voting for Left Bank Books. We don’t take your vote lightly. This next year will not be easy and it will take all of us. We know that cash is short, that times are uncertain. We also know that there are some dozen chain bookstores in the metro area, and a sizeable number of boxes with the A-word on them being delivered to St. Louis doorsteps. They’re opening their doors and selling millions of dollars of books to St. Louisans. Then they’re taking the profits out of town. All we ask is that the next time you do have a few dollars to spend on books, you come to us, or any other locally-owned bookstore for that matter, when you spend them. That’s all. Even a fraction of a percent of the sales going to those chain stores and that online usurper of local economies would make a huge difference. A sustainable difference. But you already knew that.
A final note of hope: the 44th president of the United States is not only a voracious reader, he’s a member of the 57th Street Books/Seminary Coop bookstore in Chicago. He supports his local bookstore and see where it got him? Yes we can, St Louis!