In the age of Amazon, it takes celebrity to launch an indie bookstore

Literary culture needs benign rich people. But celebrity authors won't save the U.S. bookstore

Published May 22, 2015 6:52PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reed Saxon/Reuters/Noah Berger/Salon)
(AP/Reed Saxon/Reuters/Noah Berger/Salon)

It’s always good news when a bookstore opens, and when it’s an indie backed with significant amounts of cash, and run by someone who really cares, it’s even better. So like everyone else, we smiled when we saw the New York Times story about “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney -- whose series “has spawned three feature films that have earned more than $225 million worldwide” -- opening a bookstore in Plainville, Mass. Like Parnassus, the shop novelist Ann Patchett co-owns in Nashville, this will allow people to stumble upon books they’d never thought of looking at, it will employ booklovers behind the counter, and will hold events that allow authors to reach readers. All good things.

But it also makes us wonder: In the Age of Amazon, are the only people who can open bookstores celebrity authors? And aren’t these cheery stories about these mostly anomalous events kind of distracting us from the big picture?

Let’s go back to Plainville for a second. Here’s what the Times story tell us.

Now, in a risky and ambitious next act, Mr. Kinney will start selling other people’s books. He’s opening a bookstore, called An Unlikely Story, in his adopted hometown, Plainville, Mass., about 40 miles south of Boston. And while he doesn’t want the store to resemble a “Wimpy Kid” theme park, he’s willing to use the popularity of the series to draw in customers. Mr. Kinney will work at the cash register and in the cafe on occasion, and he plans to teach a cartooning workshop at the store.

This truly is great. If we lived in Massachusetts we’d go there! And let’s offer Kinney and Padgett and the others – including James Patterson, who’s given grants to bookstores – high fives. We’re glad they’re doing this, and it’s not easy, especially in this climate.

But isn’t this a bit like the benefit concerts that we threw for ailing and dying musicians back in the days before national medical insurance? The fact that Victoria Williams, Vic Chetnutt and Alejandro Escovedo came close to dying because they lived in a country that denied people basic health coverage was the original sin – and larger context -- there. Musicians and fans worked hard to apply a (much needed) band-aid with Sweet Relief concerts and the like. But in the long run we needed a broader safety net, not more passing of the hat.

So what’s the larger context here? Well, if you follow the conversation as it’s expressed by bookstore organizations and the Times story, everything is fine: Indies are bouncing back, and some really cool authors are opening new stores! But somehow the Times piece neglects to use the term “online bookselling” or name Amazon even once, or to mention that there are approximately half the number of indies now than there were in the ‘90s, even as we’ve added more than 60 million people to U.S. population since then. The story tells is instead that “the ranks of booksellers are swelling.” Man, that sounds great.

If indies are rising a bit – and they are, as the story notes, up a bit from ’09 -- it’s because we are slowly escaping the depths of the worst economic collapse since the ‘30s, and because many of the new indies fill gaps created when a Borders or Barnes & Noble disappeared. This was the case with Patchett's Parnassus: after the Borders shut, Nashville, whose population is about that of Boston’s, had no bookstore in town. (We’ll leave aside for a moment that those chains, of course, came in and wiped out a lot of local, family-owned stores and then, like the abandoned shopping mall at the edge of town, fell victim to the next wave of creative destruction when the digital revolution arrived.)

Where I live, on the edge of Los Angeles, there is now only one (chain) bookstore nearby, and used and new bookstores in surrounding areas continue to drop even as the California economy improves. During my years writing about books and bookstores for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote the obits of several shops, and when I did, I often called heads of bookselling organizations. I still recall one telling me how it was the specialized shops – like that great mystery bookstore in South Pasadena – that fit into the niched new economy and knew its audience better than a general bookstore could. Within a few years, that one went down, too, as did the wonderful Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. And since the recovery, rents in cities like L.A. and San Francisco and Brooklyn and Boston have gone through the roof, which makes it harder for shops selling fixed-price items to survive.

But you don’t hear a lot about this kind of thing, especially when there is not a celebrity involved.

So what’s the larger context? For years, Amazon paid no sales tax while it competed against brick-and-mortar stores that did; it still gets huge amounts of support from the federal government (that $600 million from the CIA is more than four times the entire National Endowment for the Arts budget) and Wall Street serves as an endless financial teat. Amazon is like the dumb rich kid in your high school who runs for class president and wipes everyone else off the map because Mom bakes the whole school cookies and Dad hires someone to wash their cars.

Fighting online bookselling is not the only place where an indie bookstore is exposed to unfair competition. The “Church” of Scientology, for instance, goes tax-free as well, allowing it to buy up huge swaths of property in big city downtowns from which it can work its dark magic on insecure and disoriented people.

Meanwhile -- unlike much of western Europe, where governments support bookstores with sensible regulations, and you can find them in every neighborhood in even expensive cities -- book shops in the States fend for themselves.

Let’s be grateful for the Patchetts and Kinneys and Patterson. We need people like them in the mix for sure. But please, let's not let anecdotes about benevolent rich people distract us from really addressing the problem. A thousand points of light won’t save the American bookstore.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amazon Ann Patchett Anne Patchett Bookstores Diary Of A Wimpy Kid Economics The New York Times