Home Economics

A friend recently forwarded me (Ben) a link from the Atlantic to an essay titled, “Two — Make That Three — Cheers For The Chain Bookstores.” I read it thinking it was from the current issue before realizing it actually appeared in the July/August 2001 edition. With that adjusted timeline in mind, I reread it again, making note of this statement toward the end of the essay:

It is quite possible that five or ten years from now the chains themselves will be as seriously endangered as the independents looked a while ago.

I just so happened to read this article the day after the Wall Street Journal reported that Barnes & Noble probably won’t make a bid to buy Borders, which has been up for sale since March. Meanwhile, The Motley Fool picks Barnes & Noble for this week’s “Throw This Stock Away” feature, saying, “It’s hard to picture a superstore chain like B&N being more relevant in the future.” As the WSJ article notes, “These are difficult times for many book publishers and retailers alike.” Talk about understatement.

It was curious, then, to read Brooke Allen’s essay, which is sharp, provocative and contrarian — and, given today’s news, still timely. It also, I think, completely misses the point.

Allen’s general point — that chain bookstores have provided many good things — is quite true. She celebrates the fact that chains have brought books to small cities and suburbs. When Barnes & Noble moved into State College, Pennsylvania, in the late 90s, I was ecstatic. It offered more selection and longer hours, and I could spend days in there. And if there hadn’t been a Barnes & Noble in Greensburg, PA, where else would I have begun wooing Erin in the summer of 2002? The Greensburg Laundromat? The mall food court?

Allen celebrates that the chains have brought more selection to the consumer, as well as helped promote new and up-and-coming authors with programs like Discover and Original Voices. Unfortunately, she seems unable to praise the chains without simultaneously attacking the independents. She describes independent bookstore enthusiasts as, variously, “culture snobs,” the “cultural elite,” “self-appointed guardians of educated America,” the “urban intelligentsia,” and those inclined to “knee-jerk snobbery.” Even worse are independent booksellers themselves: They may be “knowledgable,” but asking for their service is subjecting oneself “to the ministrations of supercilious sales clerks who, no matter how little they know about whatever author or subject you are searching for, still manage to act patronizing.” Allen gets one of her sources to level a similar charge: “Why should we care about the collapse of snotty, understocked bookstores where they complain if you want to return a book?”

This is simply too easy of a straw man to blow down. Allen does the exact thing to independents — resorting to snobby condescension — that she laments in those who criticize the chains. So what, one wonders, is her real complaint? (Did an independent bookseller slash her tires or something?)

Central to Allen’s argument is this: The more bookstores, the better. She writes,

The best independents have held their own, thanks to some energetic rearguard actions and to the realization by the independents that if they are going to keep competing, they have to provide some of the more successful features of the chains, such as discounts, extended hours, comfort, and parking. Competition from the chains, in other words, has improved the services in the independents that have survived.

Taylor Clark made a similar observation in his book Starbucked, a cultural study of Starbucks. Clark found that when a Starbucks opened in the same neighborhood as an independent coffee shop, the independent shop in many cases actually did better with the corporate competition. So is there any difference between coffee and books? The answer, basically, is price. A cup of joe is not going to differ as drastically between a mom-and-pop cafe and Starbucks (in many cases, the mom-and-pop cafe probably has cheaper coffee) as a bestseller will differ between an independent and a chain, which may mark it down as much as forty percent.

Contrary to what Allen suggests, we apparently can have too many bookstores, as independents and chains alike struggle to survive today. But the real dichotomy is less chains vs. independents than it is brick-and-mortar stores vs. Amazon and other online rivals. One might argue that this is because Amazon provides more books at cheaper prices, and certainly this is a huge part of its appeal. (Another is that Amazon has access to used and out-of-print titles.) A book doesn’t even have to be a bestseller for Amazon to discount it. Virtually everything at Amazon is at least thirty percent off. That’s a hard argument to refuse: Why wouldn’t you buy a book at the cheapest price? Or, to reframe the question from the independent’s perspective: If we can’t sell a book at forty percent off, then what do we have to offer that the chains can’t match?

The answer is something that Allen fails to acknowledge at all: Community. The value of place. An independent store is rooted somewhere. If you spend $100 at a local establishment — a bookstore, coffee shop, record store, hardware store, you name it — an average of $68 stays in your community. If you spend it at a national chain, only $43 stays. More of your taxes are reinvested locally, and local businesses are more likely to support local charities. Does this mean all chains are bad? Of course not. But does the existence of chains means it’s an uphill battle for independents — and, by extension, the local community? Absolutely.

Wendell Berry, someone for whom most things return to the themes of community and economy, writes in his essay “Conservation is Good Work,”

What we must do is use well the considerable power we have as consumers: the power of choice. We can choose to buy or not to buy, and we can choose what to buy. The standard by which we choose must be the health of the community — and by that we must mean the whole community: ourselves, the place where we live, and all the humans and other creatures who live there with us. In a healthy community, people will be richer in their neighbors, in neighborhood, in the health and pleasure of neighborhood, than in their bank accounts. It is better, therefore, even if the cost is greater, to buy near at hand than to buy at a distance. It is better to buy from a small, privately owned local store than from a chain store. … Do everything you can to see that your money stays as long as possible in the local community.

In other words, economics is more than just math. There are intangible benefits to living someplace with a thriving local economy. To use bookstores as an example, what would Portland be like without Powells, or Denver without The Tattered Cover? Or music — what would Nashville be like without Grimey’s, or Cincinnati without Shake It or Everybody’s, limiting your music choices to what’s in stock at Target? And would the quality of what’s available to read or listen to — what a clerk puts in your hand when you ask for a recommendation — suffer? It’s hard to measure on paper, but something would be missing. So should we really be cheering for the chains? As Flannery O’Connor put it, “Somewhere is better than anywhere.”


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