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Voting Independent -- At the Bookstore


Despite the fact I tend to vote the donkey ticket in elections, there's one area of my life where I lean distinctly independent: bookstores.

I'll admit there are things I like about the chains. In the Cambridgeside Galleria near where I work, there's a Borders where I can find a solid assortment of travel guides and health books. Rarely do I go there seeking something useful they don't have. And the Barnes & Noble in my town has an excellent magazine section. I head there when I need to purchase an issue in which one of the books I'm publicizing is reviewed.

But conveniences aside, let's face it: these stores -- despite their cafés and comfy chairs -- don't have the charm of, say, a McNally Robinson or a Tattered Cover. And with a few notable exceptions -- like Barnes & Noble Rockefeller Center or Borders Michigan Avenue -- they don't have the cachet of a Powell's or an Elliott Bay.

When I walk into an independent bookstore and see the books on the front tables, I know they've been selected by the people who work there -- people who know their customers. I certainly understand why central buying is a necessity for the chains, and most of their buyers are up on their subject-areas and make good choices on the whole. But knowing a category is different than knowing a community. Shopping at a chain just doesn't provide the same experience as shopping at a store where the owner has personally purchased a book from a sales rep because he "knows someone who'll like it."

The four indies in my life -- Newtonville Books, Harvard Bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, and Porter Square Books -- are so beloved by their clients that it's hard to imagine them as anything but thriving. Yet many of the country's mom-and-pop shops are struggling to stay afloat these days, and the chains have clearly played a role in their demise. That said, it would be unfair of me to fault the chains entirely. For many American publishers, Barnes & Noble and Borders combined make up more than half their business. And while this creates a certain cultural homogeneity that I find unsettling (in the same way I find IHOP and Denny's and other restaurant chains unsettling -- I prefer my brunch at diners, folks), the fact is some presses wouldn't survive without their orders. And here's more food for thought: some towns would be bookstoreless without them. Not every city is lucky enough to have a Warwick's or a Politics & Prose, and I'll certainly take a B&N over another Waffle House.

But give me an independent, please -- preferably one with a cat-in-residence that hosts events for the poet-in-residence at the college down the street. Please let them have a newsletter -- the kind with its own bestseller list and quirky recommendations from their equally quirky staff. And please, when I wander in and ask for "that novel that was written by that British author who just published that other novel about that beach," let them look at me and smile and say the word Atonement before I start to embarrass myself by describing the scene on its cover.