Fiction Outside the Box

Dear Reader:

Yesterday my daughter decided to spend her Border’s gift card.

Yes, Borders–one of those mega-chains that can and do out-price and out-stock small independent businesses making it harder or even impossible for them to survive. I have to admit, Borders is one of my favorite places to shop. Just the smell of the place–the heady aroma of books mixed with the scent of good coffee from the cafe area–makes me happy. And the selection! Aisle upon aisle of every kind of book on every subject one could wish to explore.

It’s a book-lover’s paradise, and I love books. Not just reading them, but holding them, turning the pages, looking at them on my bookshelves and remembering all the quiet, comforting hours spent with my nose buried in them. Given enough resources, I’d fill my house with them, every room. As it is, my lovely husband built a whole wall of shelves for me in my tiny office. I’ve already resorted to shelving my books two rows deep and laying others flat when I couldn’t squeeze them in.

I can spend hours in a Borders bookstore, wandering from travel to romance to history to religion to nutrition. The workers keep an eye on me, suspecting foul play, but I just smile at them and continue browsing. It’s a rare day I leave without dropping fifty bucks.

But those days are over. This year, I’m shopping locally.

Once upon a time, I worked in a small, independent bookstore in Oxford, Maine. I know first-hand how the big book chains and Amazon.com cut into these little jewelboxes of literary treasure found in fewer and fewer of our small towns. The store in which I worked, Books ‘n Things, was owned and operated by Katie Whitehead. With a seven-month-old baby on my hip and trepidation in my heart, I went into the store and inquired about work. I was handed an application. Katie interviewed me a week or so later and offered me a few hours during the week plus Saturday mornings–a perfect schedule for a new, stay-at-home mom.

It was a dream job for someone who loves books. I had a discount. I had access to the newest fiction. Katie had a subscription to the New York Times Review of Books. The salary didn’t matter so much as the stimulation, the chance to get out of the house, the opportunity to use my baby-numbed brain a little.

Katie worked hard, she expected her employees to work hard, and I learned alot from her. I learned about Books In Print and publisher catalogs and how to “front” books on the shelf. As she insisted her employees count back change rather than depend on the calculator, even my math skills improved.

The best part, though, was the personal relationship with the customers. The regulars would come in week after week, and I got to know their preferences. We’d chat about our favorite authors or just about life in general. At Christmastime, people would come in to buy books for everyone in their family, and we’d wrap the selections in heavy, purple wrapping paper.

The store was small enough that I knew our inventory and could usually get a requested book into someone’s hand in less than a minute. If we didn’t carry the book, ordering was a simple process, and we would call the customer when their book arrived, most of the time within a week.

Katie advertised in the local paper every week, supporting the local economy. She donated books for school fundraisers, supporting local education. She gave many a teenager their first job. She hired teachers looking for part-time income to supplement their salaries.

Katie and her bookstore were an integral part of the Oxford Hills community, as independent bookstores are important to communities all across America. Dollars spent at a local business are much more likely to stay in the region. Studies have been done to show this. Read this study done in mid-coast Maine about the positive effects of local business on communities. Case Study.

Unfortunately, the survival of these small, literary havens is threatened every day by competition from the big-box and online book retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble. However, even the big chains admit that independents do a better job in some areas. Read this article about an independent bookstore in Illinois.

When a Walmart opens up shop down the road and offers steep discounts for the new release hardcover books, that cuts into one of the most profitable area of sales for independent sellers. You’ve probably seen the movie YOU’VE GOT MAIL, starring Meg Ryan as a children’s bookstore owner and Tom Hanks as a mega-book retailer whose newest store drives the little place out of business. That’s what happens to independents when Borders or Barnes and Noble rolls into town. Amazon.com offers the convenience of home shopping, and that, too, can eat into profits. It’s amazing to me that any of these independent bookstores have survived at all–but they have.

They have fought back with online shopping from their websites. They have fought back with a program called Booksense, which has now evolved into a program called IndieBound developed by the American Booksellers Association. One of the most exciting aspects of the program is the giftcard program which allows booksellers to accept each other’s giftcards. An IndieBound giftcard bought in Maine will be honored at a participating independent bookstore in Ohio.

Independents have also fought back by highlighting their uniqueness, their customer-service orientation, their ability to find new voices in literature that the big chains might miss. Because of these independents, smaller publishers and new authors get a chance to reach readers. Regional authors are often showcased at smaller stores. The booksellers at independents are often more knowledgeable than your average cashier at the big-box store.

We can help them survive by voting with our shopping dollars.

Katie sold her bookstore back around the year 2000, but Books n Things is still alive and well, now housed on Main Street in Norway. If you’re ever up that way, stop in and check out the selection. I’m sure the new owner will appreciate the interest and the business.

My town doesn’t have a bookstore. Neither does the town next door. Or the town next door to that. Even the city of Sanford lacks an independent bookstore. The town of Alfred has a nice antique bookstore, and Sanford does have a used bookstore run by a nonprofit organization, but for new books I’ve resorted to shopping at the Borders in South Portland and on Amazon. However, with the need for local-shopping pressing down on me, I’ve done a little research and discovered a locally-owned shop in Saco called Nonesuch Books. There is also a South Portland Nonesuch Books, so there really is no excuse anymore for shopping at Borders . . . or Amazon, as I can order the books online from Nonesuch or simply make a quick call to a helpful bookseller.

Which brings me back to yesterday. My daughter isn’t participating in my experiment, and she had this giftcard from a generous great-Aunt and Uncle. (Thanks Aunt Sandy and Uncle Niles!) I went into Borders with her, and that familiar smell of books and coffee hit my nostrils. I resolutely ignored the piles of discounted fiction calling to me and followed my daughter to the children’s section. Addiction takes many forms, and it just didn’t feel right to walk up to that checkout counter with no books in hand. They called to me as we wound our way from the back of the store where the smart spacial engineers stuck the children’s section knowing the parents would have to pass by tempting displays all the way to Harry Potter and back.

I’m happy to report that I resisted. Danielle spent the gift-card that was burning a hole in her pocketbook and happily read all the way home. Feeling slightly depressed, I promised myself a trip to Saco very soon, and dreamed of the day when some enterprising (and independently wealthy) soul opens a bookstore here in my hometown. In the meantime, I have library books and my bulging shelves to keep me satisfied.

For those of you who would like a little reading today, I’ve posted a short story on my Fiction Corner page. I can’t promise you it’s any good, but it is free!

3 responses to “Fiction Outside the Box

  1. I also miss the independent bookstore I used to work in. I miss knowing exactly where a book is on the shelf and the look on the customers fae when you find it for them. I miss our used-book section. A whole floor of books priced less than $4.00. We have a local bookstore but it is small and I don’t find the staff welcoming. There is a certain ambiance that a bookstore should have. We have decided at my book group that we have to hold the book in our hands; not browse a book cover on our computer screen. As you said Shelley, there is the library and yeah I got stacks of books too:)

  2. I’m sorry to hear that the local store isn’t welcoming. Frankly, it’s surprising that in this economy they wouldn’t be working really hard to attract and retain customers. I agree about the ambiance. Books ‘n Things had this great, old, Victorian sofa where you could sit and look at books. There was also a children’s playroom area where the kids could hang out while Mom or Dad shopped. Katie sold Celtic and other world/folk music, so an album was always playing in the background. Maybe one of these days we’ll get to open a bookstore ourselves–we could have one branch in your town and one in mine. Now, where to get the money . . .?

  3. Patrick Caron

    I am amazed at your control of the “word” It’s a pleasure to read word like you type them.
    I grew up in a family that had a great garden, and I, like you or your family, remember picking up vegetable,weeding, canning for winter,and all the good memories I have of those wonderful days of old.It seems we have gotten away from that life. Time to go back.

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