Why my small bookstore matters

At Changing Hands we do more than just sell people books: We create a community -- and a new generation of readers

Published November 28, 2011 10:56PM (EST)

We asked our favorite local bookstores to give us lists of books that fit the American Spring theme.

Featured bookstore: Changing Hands
Location: 6428 S. McClintock Drive, Tempe, Ariz.
Website: www.changinghands.com

American Spring Book List:

  • "Union Atlantic" by Adam Haslett
  • "Griftopia" by Matt Taibbi
  • "The Caretaker of Lorne Field" by Dave Zeltserman
  • "Babbit" by Sinclair Lewis
  • "Oil" by Upton Sinclair
  • "Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart
  • "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck
  • "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenrich
  • "Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream" by Arianna Huffington
  • "The Financial Lives of the Poets" by Jess Walter

Buy these from Changing Hands

About Changing Hands:
Changing Hands opened its doors in 1974 in a room the size of most living rooms. It has grown over the years, moved three times and now occupies 13,000 square feet of space in a suburban strip mall. Our neighbors include a Trader Joe’s, a great independent cafe called the Wildflower Bread Co., an indie bar and indie music store called Hoodlum’s. The bookstore is a work of art with curvy walkways, beautiful frescoes painted on the walls and comfortable chairs and tables situated to make browsing easy. The children’s section is a destination for parents and kids of all ages. We have events nearly every day of the year, sometimes more than one in an afternoon or evening. The shelves are stocked with great new, used and sale books all carefully chosen and many of them have staff recommendations. We carry lots of gift items scattered throughout the store and at holiday times we can be the source for many a customer’s entire shopping list for readers and non-readers alike.

Sounds like the perfect scenario, right? But unfortunately, Changing Hands, like many bookstores across the country, may be the last generation in the proud tradition of booksellers in this country. My fellow independent booksellers are working harder, earning less, often becoming bartenders, baristas, purveyors of wonderful toys and unique gifts, and trying — always trying — to keep their stores afloat and filled with incredible books, when increasingly the default for many book buyers is often a click away. And, unfortunately, not a click to our carefully crafted websites replete with staff recommendations, but to online mega-retailers who sell books not as a precious repository of the written word, but as loss-leaders to entice people to shop for consumer electronics, motor oil, garden supplies, hamster food — you name it.

This online race for the lowest prices has taught many people that books, too, should be dirt cheap, and that shopping for the lowest price is always admirable. It's not that I'm a clueless consumer and don't want to get the best value for my hard-earned dollars. I do. But I've also learned that price is relative. Often the experience of buying something is half the fun, and worth paying for, especially when I know my money is staying in my own community, or employing people who live in my neighborhood, or will ensure that my favorite restaurant or store will continue to be there the next time I want to visit. Perhaps more to the point, do we really save money when we rely on bogus online reviews from an author's family, publicist and best friends? Not really. We truly save when we get recommendations from knowledgeable booksellers who tell the truth about the books that they've read, because those are the books you're far more likely to enjoy, and maybe even love. And, often, at Changing Hands, these books can be found at used or bargain prices.

As important as the book industry is, there's actually more at stake than the fate of bookstores. What's at stake is community. Your community. Our community. Because online mega-retailers who use books as loss leaders to sell many things could put many retailers out of business, not just booksellers. And if they succeed, the backbone of every local economy in the country will be severed.

A new study prepared for American Express OPEN by Civic Economics has found that home values in neighborhoods with thriving independent businesses outperformed citywide markets by 50 percent over the last 14 years. It also notes that those same neighborhoods benefited from strong hiring at small, independently owned businesses:

"This research validates what we know intuitively—that small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities," said Susan Sobbott, president of American Express OPEN. "There is concrete evidence that thriving independent neighborhoods lead to higher real estate values and more local jobs."

But back to books. What's it worth to our communities, to our common culture, to have independent bookstores? What would it mean if online retailers became our only choice, if publishers reduced the number of titles they publish each year, if authors have Amazon publish their books? Do we want books — their publication and sale alike — in the hands of a single corporation? What will happen to authors like Justin Torres or Alice LaPlante, Miranda July or Jhumpa Lahiri, if booksellers aren't reading and recommending these extraordinary novelists to their communities? Will we all be "browsing" online? There are some wonderful book blogs on the Web. Will they become the sole source of discovery? Or, will the serendipitous discovery of a life-changing book, encountered while browsing books on a shelf, continue to play a role in our reading lives? What about a heartfelt recommendation from a bookseller who knows and who cares about the book, about you, and about matching one to the other?

At this moment in our industry's history, indie stores like Changing Hands have in some ways become showrooms for books. We read, we recommend, we display staff picks, we advertise and promote, we interact one-on-one to match the right book with the right person, and we host hundreds of author events every year. Sadly, our sales don't always reflect our efforts. Luckily, we generate a lot of local publicity for books and author events — in local newspapers, blogs and magazines, and on radio programs and morning television. But all too often the benefits of that hard work go to Amazon and the chain bookstores. This is not unique to Changing Hands. Millions of readers learn about books from enthusiastic indie bookstores across the country, then buy elsewhere, often resulting in our publisher partners lamenting the diminishing return they get from independent booksellers, when in fact the spike in online and chain store sales is frequently attributable to our collective nationwide efforts.

Sorry if this sounds like a rant, especially at this time of year, but this issue is serious both in terms of reading and of community. This isn't just about my fate, but our collective fates as readers and as members of this wonderful community.

So, do books have wings? They will if you and the other readers in America think before you click on Amazon for books. Whatever your decision, we ask that you take into consideration all aspects of shopping — because the price we all pay for shopping online is much bigger than we've been led to believe. No money flows back into your local economy — no tax revenue, no recirculating dollars that support other businesses, local roads and infrastructure, your schools and libraries, social services, parks and playgrounds.

Ultimately, we all make our own decisions about what we buy and where we buy it. But informed decisions are the best kind. When I shop, I think not only about the money I save in the short term, but of the things I may lose in the long term if I choose chain stores too many times in a row. That's the gift independent businesses like Changing Hands want this holiday season. In return, we'll give you the best shopping experience imaginable, the most knowledgeable staff, and in our case, a selection of books and gifts so carefully chosen that browsing becomes pure pleasure, buying an act of affirmation.

Buy from Changing Hands

By Salon Staff

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