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LOCAL Review :: Media : Miscellaneous

How to Improvise Your Own Indie Store and Beat Back the Chains (a book review)

There’s this book you want to buy. You could order it online from Amazon, but wouldn’t it be nice to browse a little and maybe buy a cup of coffee too? So you head to the nearest bookstore, Borders (or is it Barnes and Noble in your neighborhood?). Check the bargain table. Nothing interesting, but the glossy photos are pretty. Well, here’s an interesting novel. Fifteen dollars for a paperback! Forget it. Now for the book you’ve been coveting: not in stock. You hunt down a harried-looking clerk who tells you it will ship in seven days, just follow her and she’ll order it online. And are you interested in Super-Sizing your order for an extra fifteen dollars? If you join Hooked on Books you will save 10% on every third title for a year.

Rebel Bookseller, by Andrew Laties

Remember when you could WALK to an INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE, find what you wanted and then some, browse for two hours and the coffee was FREE? No? Well, I remember. . . .

Once upon a time, back in the late 1980s, independent bookstores were growing at a rate of five hundred a year. The American Booksellers Association (ABA) had four thousand members. Just a few years later, two thousand indies were out of business. What happened to the independent bookstores and why should anyone care?

Author Andrew Laties’s book, Rebel Bookseller: How to Improvise Your Own Indie Store and Beat Back the Chains (Vox Pop, 2005), offers enlightenment. Be forewarned: Rebel Bookseller is not a typical how-to manual. It is a “handbook for retail revolution;? part cautionary tale, part business memoir and full of impassioned rants and insightful humor. Laties says he wrote Rebel Bookseller “for twenty year olds who work at the chains and dream of running their own bookstores.? In it he chronicles the rise of the chains, bolstered by sweetheart deals with publishing conglomerates, the concomitant rising cost of books and the subsequent blockbuster mentality that has eroded support for mid-list books and authors. If you are a reader, and if you believe that accessibility is essential to free speech, you would be well-advised to consider what Laties has to say about the state of independent bookselling today.

Laties has been in the book business for over twenty years. He got his start as a receiving clerk at B. Dalton Booksellers, and eventually co-founded The Children’s Bookstore in Chicago, began the Children’s Bookfair Company and ran the Chicago Children’s Museum Store. For ten years he was a workshop instructor for the American Bookseller’s Association, for which he created the film Art of Selling Children’s Books. Currently Laties manages the Eric Carle Museum Bookshop in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is co-owner of Vox Pop, a Brooklyn-based coffee shop, bookstore, and publishing company.

I recently exchanged a series of emails and spoke with Laties on the telephone. Below are excerpts of our conversation:

Q: Why should anyone care about the shrinking number of independent booksellers?

A: Readers should care just as we benefit from having a certain proportion of teachers and doctors and car mechanics and chefs and gardeners and social workers in our towns, so we benefit from having a certain proportion of bookstore-owners around. Each bookstore-owner is a buyer. I buy from publishers. I have strong opinions and a lot of accumumlated professional knowledge. I know my neighbors personally and they're the customers who trust me to scour the marketplace for just the books they're likely to be interested in. Losing independent booksellers is like losing music teachers or psychotherapists. Readers genuinely benefit from this direct relationship with the buyer in their nearby bookstore.

Authors care because as a member of my community I'm not selecting which authors to represent in my store based on bottom-line considerations exclusively. I like taking a risk on an untried author, on an unusual book, on a local writer, on a peculiar subject category. My customers appreciate my innovative book inventory. And – although many authors may not get their books into my store, if there are thousands of local buyers like me, then lots of authors have a shot at intriguing the buyers whose tastes turn out to include the works of those authors. What author wants their livelihood to depend on the whims and financial calculations of a few buyers in New York, or on the willingness of their publisher to pony up tens of thousands of dollars to purchase premium shelf space in chain stores?

Booksellers care because although we may get our first jobs in chainstores, we dream of serving our communities with our whole selves. We love books and we want to live this profession out in its entirety, as buyers for our stores, as pillars of our communities, as fundraisers for our local schools, and as people who help other people engage in a full relationship with books. Working as cogs in a gigantic corporate machine is ultimately soul-deadening.

Q: I had no idea that Clear Channel was in the business of running museum shops and bookstores for children. Would you tell me more about this? [Clear Channel Communications, Inc. is a media conglomerate that owns over 1,200 radio and over 30 television stations in the United States]

A: This is the biggest story I break in Rebel Bookseller. Thanks for noticing it. This has been happening without any notice in the media. Here's the story: Tom Hicks, Vice Chair of Clear Channel Communications, made a personal investment of, I think, $20 million into Event Network, a corporation founded by Larry Gilbert. Event Network runs traveling stores for Clear Channel Exhibitions shows.

While Clear Channel Exhibitions is obviously part of the corporate identity of Clear Channel, Event Network is a private kind of project of Hicks--he is an investor in the entirely separate company, Event Network, and EN has a sweetheart deal with the corporate entity Clear Channel Exhibitions which does not itself have any investment relationship with its "client" EN. Essentially, Hicks has hitched corporate business to his personal project.

Event Network used Hicks’ capital to run their rapid expansion. Check out the number of shops they've taken over in just the past four years.

Who exactly is the moneyman behind this chain of museum stores? Who is Tom Hicks? See the WhiteHouseForSale website.

In other words, many of America's leading cultural attractions have been turned into retail partners with a crony of G. W. Bush. And I believe that the boards of these museums do not know of Tom Hicks's relationship with the store-operating-company Event Network. On the internet, the page I found in May of 2002 announcing Hicks's $20 million investment in Event Network had vanished a year later. And there is no way to find out about this deal. I have been unable to substantiate it ever since I first encountered it. (I learned of it through my connections at the Chicago Children's Museum.)

If all these museums knew that Tom Hicks was the money-guy behind the Event Network expansion, would this change their minds about their deals? I doubt it. Most museums are desperately leaping into the arms of for-profiteers, since the non-profit fundraising environment is so tough.

Q: Why should anyone be concerned about Clear Channel’s involvement?

A: Museums are local cultural institutions that receive tax benefits, cheap rents, government money and public donations. It's appalling that these advantages are being essentially passed through to gigantic corporations. This is an abuse of the oversight responsibilities of these museums' boards of trustees. Museums are also a form of media, in that they advance ideas in the form of exhibitions. When major corporations are bankrolling spaces in museums, its only the ideas that correspond to those corporations' advantage that will be advanced. As a very small example: my store at Chicago Children's Museum contained a terrific assortment of books, many of which were quite controversial-- for instance, Eve Merriams' title “The Inner City Mother Goose?. Such challenging books will never be sold in a store operated by Event Network.

Q: You write that in your experience, the majority of sales are for the same few books. What drives consumer taste? And how can an indie bookseller “sell more of what sells? (SMOWS) while also promoting a diversity of books?

A: What drives consumer taste? It varies so much locally, regionally. The question you’re asking, I think, is “what COULD drive BETTER consumer taste?? I suppose that the most powerful force, unfortunately, is mass media. Of course I’m arguing for More Indie Booksellers In Neighborhoods.

As far as my rather bizarre interpretation of SMOWS—I’m saying that terrific booksellers can turn this basic retail maxim to account. I have to discover some cool and weird book and then Push The Hell Out Of It. I can MAKE a bestseller in my store. But I have to be highly self-conscious. I have to WORK to find those oddball titles that will sell so well in my store because I know how to push them.

Q: You say that booksellers in the 21st century should not be afraid to publish and promote important books that publishing conglomerates won’t support, and you reference Ed Sacks’ The Chicago Tenants Handbook as a book that went out of print under pressure from a smear campaign despite brisk local sales and an obvious market. Would you say more about the relationship between micropublishers and booksellers? Why did you get involved with Vox Pop?

A: Well – Vox Pop is my publisher, and the founder Sander Hicks offered me part-ownership in his company in place of a cash advance on my book! So – although I offered him a ton of advice during his start-up process, I would never have even considered requesting that he give me part-ownership in his business. He advanced this idea, and eventually I agreed that I'd enjoy participating as a part owner.

However, it's Holley Anderson and Sander Hicks's store, really. They're there at Vox Pop in Brooklyn every day while I'm running the store at Eric Carle Museum in Amherst every day. Now – as far as bookstores publishing books: this is the oldest thing around. Historically, all bookstores used to publish books. It's only very recently – maybe just this past century – that most bookstores weren't involved with any publishing. Some of the most important outsider texts were first published by booksellers: Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare And Company in Paris published James Joyce's “Ulysses?, for instance. Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in San Francisco published Allan Ginsberg's “Howl?. Booksellers are very close to the readers, so we're sometimes better poised to understand the potential importance a challenging text will have to readers.

Q: Do you think that indie stores can push mainstream publishers to change their way of doing business?

A: I try to draw a distinction between the "bookstore lovers working for publishing companies" and the corporate-entities called "the publishers". That is, "the publishers" do not exist, and this is the problem. A corporation is not a real "thing". "It" has no morality, in particular, except insofar as a public show of morality is obviously a profit-making, competitive mechanism for a "socially-responsible" corporation. One of the aims of my book is to activate a critical mass of people involved in the book industry to take specific, personal acts that somehow transform the playing field.

Q: Any regrets? Things you would do differently?

A: I think that the process of writing this book fronted many issues for me. I tried to permit who did things differently, or analyzed my actions, to speak directly to the reader. For instance, David Schlessinger [founder and CEO of Zany Brainy toy company] arguing in favor of concentrating on opening more locations. Or showing how Len Riggio [founder and CEO of Barnes and Noble] was able to leverage himself from a small company into a large company using industry fault-lines.

How can I say I’d do anything differently? If I’d done something differently, then there’d of been outcomes that led to outcomes. . . .

Q: What do you hope the bookselling industry will look like in the next ten years?

A: I hope that we’re at the bottom of the cycle and that there will be several thousand new indie bookstores launched over the course of the next decade, ideally by young people.

[NOTE: Rebel Bookseller has been named a semi-finalist in the “Writing and Publishing? category of the 2006 IPPY Awards (sponsored by Independent Publisher). Finalists and winners will be announced on May 10, 2006.]


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