I recently helped shuttle a friend home from a Wicker Park bar. I opted to sleep on her couch that night. At precisely four in the morning, the lights came on and a trio of inebriated roommates stumbled in, one of them triumphantly hoisting a 7-Eleven burrito and demanding I partake. Under no circumstances do I turn down free food, so I bit into it, still sleepy.
“So what do you do?” one of them asked, wobbling.
“I work at The Book Cellar, an indie bookstore on the North Side.”
“Better get out of that line of work,” she said. “Nothing there for you.”
I mulled it over as I accepted her bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
And I’m still mulling it over. There’s an undeniable social tension these days at the mention of independent bookstores; to the general public, the subject’s like an old relative you know has had pneumonia for some time and is just clinging on with a tenacity reserved for the elderly. A consciousness that whispers, “Sure, the memories were great, yeah, but let’s get real.”
What many people want to accept but are afraid to believe is that brick-and-mortar bookstores have a fighting chance against mega-companies—like Amazon, which uses the allure of significantly under-priced books to draw unwitting customers into its vast digital world. What few seem to realize is that although bookstores are reeling from a series of sucker punches (from Amazon and, more recently, Google, which withdrew its e-book partnership with independents as of January 13th, 2013), there remain a significant many who still want their books—their actual books—pages and spines and coffee stains and all.
If you want evidence, look no further than Ann Patchett’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Bookstore Strikes Back.” Like the film its title recalls, Patchett’s essay illuminates a small group of rebels—bookstore owners and employees—effectively fighting against a seemingly unstoppable force. When Nashville closed its two remaining bookstores, Patchett teamed up with publishing reps Karen Hayes and Mary Grey James to open Parnassus Books. The store has seen resounding success, attributed to the fact that bookstores are still profitable and, more importantly, still populated by consumers who value human interaction over online shopping carts, personal book recommendations over algorithmic best-guessing. Even Nashville’s two recently defunct stores, Patchett stresses, were profitable every month, opting to close not because they were out of the book race, but because the rising tide seemed poised to drown the community’s local efforts sooner or later. Which begs the question: are we letting our own pessimism do the rest of Amazon’s work for them?
The Book Cellar sells books at list price, as it must. But for that extra five-to-ten dollars per book, you’re treated to an entire world: a space for weekly book clubs, for children’s story time, for local authors to come read and sign their work. You can eat a sandwich, imbibe a glass of merlot, peruse aisles with handwritten book recommendations. We host an all female-comedy group and a phenomenal essay series. If you had walked through our doors recently, you might have met Pulitzer Prize-nominee Dave Eggers, who stopped by to talk with his fans. It’s this invaluable arsenal we sometimes forget we possess.
Let’s not dismiss e-books just yet, either. When Google severed ties with independent bookstores, the American Booksellers Association teamed up with Kobo, a retailer of high-quality e-readers with a database of over 2.5 million e-books. Participating bookstores feature links on their websites allowing customers to register a Kobo device and to send a portion of e-book sales back to the bookstore of their choice. It’s a marriage of both worlds: you can read electronically and support your community. The free Kobo app allows you to read your books on your smart phone, tablet, computer, or e-reader, and they can be viewed in open formats like ePub and PDF.
A number of bookstores in Chicago are giving the Kobo a try, including my own. Since Christmas, The Book Cellar has introduced the Kobo Mini, the Glo, and the Arc. They’re competitively set against the Nook and the Kindle—and not just in price. Read almost any top ten e-reader list and one of Kobo’s products is likely to make an appearance. In fact, Wired magazine just named the Glo among its top three e-readers for 2013.
In the two months we’ve had them, Kobo sales at the Book Cellar have been admittedly slow, but maybe that’s because e-readers in independent bookstores feel a bit like someone selling apples in a candy store. They’re still alien and out-of-place to the seasoned reader of tangible books. Mark my words, though: the key to curbing e-book sales to the advantage of independents is going to rely on honest dialogue with customers about the fact that e-books aren’t going away anytime soon. With a little investment in where one buys books, they can actually provide a service to indies in communities across America.
Whether Kobo takes off in bookstores remains to be seen. What’s important is that the option exists at all, that an ethical response to this present erosion can be found in the store right down your street—a store that unites a community, creates jobs, a tax base, a home for children and parents. There is something in this business for me. And something for you. For all of us, if we’re sure we really want it. Bookstores can survive, but not without the united efforts of everyone who ever stood in a narrow aisle and talked with glittering eyes about the books that changed their lives.
Derek Harmening graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011 with a degree in English. He spent the summer of 2011 as a student of the Denver Publishing Institute, where he received a certificate in publishing. In August 2011, he moved to Chicago on a wing and a prayer. Currently, he works as a bookseller at the Book Cellar, and has interned remotely for Engine Books in Indianapolis. His fiction has appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's undergraduate magazine Laurus.