Thursday, August 31, 2006

Down But Not Out--Return of the Indies! by Sara Paretsky

“I can’t live without cappuccino,” Thomas Jefferson famously said. No, wait, it was books he couldn’t live without (slaves, too, apparently, but we won’t go there just now.) Conventional wisdom for modern bookstores seems to be that you need 150,000 titles and a coffee bar to flourish. Conventional wisdom says the independent bookstore is a dying duck unless it’s like Denver’s Tattered Cover, superstores with cafes that outshine the chains. But suddenly small and mid-sized indies are making a comeback, with market share up two years in a row (according to Ipsos BookTrends data), apparently surviving without caffeine.
I grew up reading Christopher Morley’s Enchanted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels. When I moved to Chicago’s South Side, I came on 57th Street Books. It’s in a cramped narrow basement, a warren of small rooms, that feels like the enchanted bookshop come to life. You can find anything, from Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics or twelve different English translations of the Bible, to Helen DeWitt’s brilliant Last Samurai, which many stores don’t stock now that it’s six years old.
Another Chicago favorite of mine is Women and Children First, one of the nation’s important feminist bookstores. When I was first published, they invited me to do a reading, as they do for all new women writers in the city. No one had heard of me: my first book sold 2500 copies, but they sought me out. Thirty years old now, Women and Children keeps re-shaping itself to speak to readers.
The Raven, in Lawrence, Kansas, is a small general store with an important mystery section. When Borders moved in across the street seven years ago, everyone assumed the Raven would be the next corpse in the mystery case, but it is stronger now than ever.
Murder, Ink on Manhattan’s upper west side is the country's oldest mystery specialty store. Founded in 1972, it used to operate out of a couple of spaces leased from a parking garage. On Broadway now, it’s still small, but a successful venue.
In the neighborhood that Seattle dubs “The Center of the Universe,” Freemont Place Books is a small hip store. In the city that invented the coffee bar, where dentists and laundromats serve espresso, they do it only with books. Amazing.
The indies handsold my books when I was starting out. I’m not sure I would make it in today’s more ruthless market—I didn’t get on the Times list until my sixth book, Burn Marks, came out. Now my books are sold everywhere, and I’m delighted, but I’m happy to see my original base alive, and well.
I shop at my local independents How about you?

42 comments:

m.kuzawinska said...

Hello!
To buy Yours books in Poland I have to go to biggest stores. Only there is large list of titles in various languages.
But I move my life to little town, so my money will go to smaller bookstories. And Yours books I will purchased by internet:)

johnny dangerous said...

I like "Books on First" in Dixon, IL, a downtown cubby-hole with a small cafe inside and an authentic Mexican restaurant down the street for lunch after browsing (and buying something!). This part of rural Illinois finally has a decent second-hand bookstore, too : Conover Books in the Conover "mall" (a converted piano factory) in Oregon, IL.

Chris said...

If ever you're in Portland, Maine, stop in at Longfellow Books. They're an employee-owned co-op, and you'll never meet a more passionate group of people when it comes to introducing you to new authors. Their recommendations are killer. I was there for Patrick Quinlan's release-party for "Smoked", so you know they're spreading the crime-fic love.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Right, Sara! And if you don't live near an independent, go to their website and order online, or phone and order. When I realized I could do this, I slapped my forhead and wondered why I hadn't thought of it years ago. Most of us don't live close to an independent bookstore, but we can support them just the same. Like The Mystery Company in Carmel IN.
Barbara D'Amato

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I did a reading at Books on First in tiny Dixon last year for Chicago Noir and I couldn't believe the crowd they turned out for it. A great bookstore and lovely people, too.

It would be appropriate here to represent the western suburbs with Centuries and Sleuths, a Forest Park bookstore which specializes in suspense and history and historical fiction. I was in there once and there were two dudes walking around dressed like Stalin and FDR. It wasn't clear to me why. A couple weeks ago I walked in on the monthly meeting of the GK Chesterton Society. There were about a dozen of them sitting in a circle taking turns reading The Ballad of the White Horse. It was awesome. I ask you, what would happen to the GK Chesterton Society if there were no indie bookstores? You can't read The Ballad of the White Horse out loud in a chain store. Someone would call a cop.

Every time I'm in there I tell Augie that a much better name for his place would be "Histories and Mysteries." To the point. And it rhymes, which is totally key.

Sean Chercover said...

I'm with you, Sara. Not only do I give my business to indies, but I also buy non-mystery books from the mystery bookstore.

So next time you need to buy a book - cookbook, dictionary, business book...doesn't matter - simply go to your independent mystery bookseller, and order it. Then come back a week later and pick it up. The mystery bookstore folks are more than happy to order non-mysteries for you and you'll feel good giving your money to a small business in 'the community'.

Sara Paretsky said...

Kevin, Thanks for putting folks in touch with Centuries and Sleuths; a great store, fun to browse and shop in, and for writers, what a good job they do in organizing their events. Plus, what's more fun than an evening roaming around Oak Park and River Forest?

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Hmmm... You probably could read "The Ballad of the White Horse" out loud at a major chain store. Doing so unobtrusively, however, requires that you stand near an exterior window, hold a grande skim latte in one hand, hang a wireless headset from one ear, and speak in a louder-than-necessary voice.

Then you'd blend in like a chopped nut in brownie batter.

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