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Why Independent Bookstores Matter

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Independent bookstores do everything big corporate bookstores do, with only one significant difference: Independents do it better.

Without independent bookstores -- meaning those places not owned by huge corporate chains or multinational conglomerates --there would be three, maybe four, books published a year.

There would be a blockbuster thriller, a densely detailed romance, a pseudo-science exploration of a catchy phenomena, and a celebrity bio.

And a diet book -- there would be a diet book.

So eventually, there would be one book issued per year: a densely detailed autobiographical and pseudo-scientific celebrity thriller containing recipes. Denzel Washington meets Stephen J. Gould meets Don Delillo meets The Naked Chef. Yum.

Without independent bookstores, those magnificent places which purchase books not by weight but by volume, there would be no great new authors to discover because no publisher would take a risk by publishing anything less than an instant bestseller.

Because places like Costco and Sam's Club also purchase books in bulk, these venues -- as well as the largest of the national chains -- pretty much decide what America will read.

Is it a wonder, then, that reading is down? That fewer people buy and read books for pleasure?

Maybe the good folks who decide how many Swiffers their community needs might not fully comprehend how many copies of the new Thomas Pynchon novel should be available for purchase. (And this remains true even after Pynchon made an appearance --okay, his voice made an appearance, if you're really going to be technical -- on The Simpsons.)

Without a healthy number of independent bookstores to order copies which they will then "hand-sell" to patrons whose tastes they understand, the landscape of every library would be different. Public and university libraries fall into this category, of course: Without an independent-bookstore market, many new books would simply be unpublished.

They would be neither be damned to obscurity or celebrated into the canon; they would exist only in Literary Limbo.

Independent bookstores give them a chance.

There would, for example, be almost no volumes of poetry published, I'm pretty sure, without places like City Lights in San Francisco or Three Lives in New York or Politics & Prose in Washington. Or, for that matter, R.J. Julia's and the UConn Coop in Connecticut. And those luminaries whose poetry would be published might be known primarily for the lyrics they penned on their latest album -- celebrity poets. Leonard Nimoy vs. Wallace Stevens.

What else would change without independent bookstores? There would be no writers of literary fiction over 22 years of age. At last count there were maybe three dozen of these still in their natural habitats; without a Hollywood contract for the film versions of their novels, however, these face extinction.

There would be no midlist authors.

But I've reached the point where I am simply tickled to have a new book published. I know the new books will reach my readers through independent bookstores because the folks in those places know my earlier work. They'll mention the titles to their customers who like essays, or humor. They'll do what I once thought publishers did: they'll find the books a home.

What about the "convenience" of ordering books over the Internet? Unless you order your fresh fruit over the Web, meet your friends and lovers via Web sites, and would trust your medicines to an on-line pharmacy, you are treating your intellectual life with less respect than you treat your other appetites and needs. What about the book that's shelved next to the one you were actually looking for -- what if that other book is the one to change your life?

And what if the big guys didn't realize it?

Don't think of independent bookstores as being out of your way --think of them as your destination.

(originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education)