Okay, I have to brag. Little Shop of Stories, the bookstore where I work in Decatur, Georgia (it's a town right next to downtown Atlanta),has won a visit from Neil Gaiman. Yes, THE Neil Gaiman.
Here's the deal: Neil wanted to offer independent bookstores a chance to get a visit from him. As I understand it, his line of reasoning was this: giant chains like Barnes & Nobles or Borders have every opportunity to have an author signing from an author of his stature, but for independent books that is an impossibility.
So he had a contest. The best Graveyard Book-themed Halloween party thrown by an independent, community bookstore would win a store visit. And guess what? We (along with McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Manitoba) won!
We're excited, and thrilled, but there are some dark clouds on the horizon. What follows after the jump is a meditation on the awesomeness of your local bookstore, and the dark vagaries of the book business...
Here's a little history about me and Little Shop of Stories. Several years ago, after my son was born, my wife got a job here in Decatur. I was a stay-at-home dad for that first year, taking care of him and our daughter, and I tried to get the kids out and about as much as possible. Somehow (was it the Decatur Book Festival? Was it storytimes?) I discovered the store, and it was awesome! The bookstore is focused on kidslit, and has fantastic sections of picture books, chapter books, board books, YA, etc etc. But it also has adult books, and the adult book section is unlike any I'd seen before: rather than having the NYT bestsellers, or shelves devoted to every subcategory of book you can think of (half a shelf for philosophy, two shelves for history, three for self-help, another for mysteries, and on and on)--instead of that, it was just divided up into nonfiction and fiction, and it felt like the most awesome personal library I'd ever seen. Little Shop's "grown-up" section is one of the clearest indicators that the bookstore only carries books that somebody in the store loves.
So I started to find excuses to take the kids to the bookstore--any chance I could get we would visit. You know, "for the children's sake." Then I'd find excuses to go without the kids. Then, Diane, one of the owners, asked me if I wanted to work there, and I jumped at the chance.
I had worked in bookstores and libraries before, so I know what to look for when I go into an independent--Does the store have a clear idea of what they're about, who their customer is, do they know their identity? Does the store have a vibrant, strong connection to the community? Do the employees love introducing books to customers, or are they book snobs? When I discovered Little Shop of Stories, I discovered a bookstore that has this in spades.
I've worked for the store going on three years now, and the store has only grown better over that time. This despite the downturn in the economy, downturns in the book business, the end of Harry Potter, a move to a bigger location that stretched our budget, the opening and closing of another bookstore two blocks away...
In that time, we've been able to get some really cook authors and illustrators to come to the store: Doreen Cronin, Robert Sabuda, Rick Riordan, Mo Willems, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jeff Kinney. And this is a great thing, because we're not able to offer the kinds of discounts that you can find on Amazon, or that's offered at B&N or Borders. What we have to offer that draws our customers to us is the fact that they know they can come in looking for a good book, and we will help them find one. We make suggestions, we go on hunts, we provide service that isn't necessarily out there. We bring authors to the store and to the local schools so that kids get to meet great writers.
And this isn't something that Little Shop of Stories is alone in providing. After all, we share the prize with McNally Robinson. I've been to awesome shops all over, in every city or community I've lived in or visited, I've tried to find a good local bookstore. My wife and I did it on our honeymoon in Bermuda. There's several great local bookstores within a few miles of us (hey Eagle Eye! Hey Books Again! Hey Blue Elephant!) that each have their own special ways of serving this great bookloving community.
I have a friend who loves Amazon. He doesn't have time to go find books in a bookstore. But he still asks me for recommendations for books for his kids. He still looks to me for book news. And the big guys look for ways to horn in local bookstore awesomeness: At the signing we had for Mo Willems two years ago, a B&N employee showed up with 50+ books from their stock to have signed and sell at their store. When we brought in Kate DiCamillo for the Decatur Book Festival this past September, Amazon had her sign books for them so they could sell them for an extra $10 on their website.
What then, at the end of this, is the take-away? Your local bookstore is awesome, but they can't be awesome without your help. Shop there, talk to the employees and owners, let them know what you want to see from an independent, help them know about opportunities to engage the community where they are, where you live. If they don't listen, if they don't engage, then they deserve to fail. But if you love your local bookstore and show up at a signing with a book you bought on Amazon or at B&N because it was cheaper, then you're killing them. Really. If you go to the store find out about a book that sounds great, but go home and order it online because it's cheaper, then you're driving that local shop, that great resource, that wonderful thing that gives your community life, right out of business.
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