Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

They say that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. In that case, I hold myself personally responsible for the ever-dwindling number of Memphis bookstores.

It looks like we’ve narrowly avoided losing the bookstore formerly known as Davis Kidd, and I’m happy about that. I’ve spent a lot of time in Davis Kidd, watching my son lord over the train table or my daughter dismantle the puppet display. We’ve spent lots of Saturday mornings at story time. I’ve spent hours reading now-favorite magazines like Oxford American and Garden & Gun.

What I haven’t spent much of, however, is money. Davis Kidd is a beloved family hang-out, but it is not where I buy books. I’ve tried, on several occasions, to pick up my next book club selection or something on my mental to-read list there, but struck out in the stacks. So I tend toward Amazon, which has lower cover prices, free shipping, and a seemingly endless supply of titles.

As a recovering small business owner, I feel some guilt about that, but I also feel compelled by the system. Low prices and greater convenience win. It’s a Walmart mentality, but there’s a reason Walmart thrives. People appreciate charm and character and a big comfy easy chair, but they appreciate their time and money even more.

That doesn’t mean I think charming, cozy places should go away, but I think we need to be realistic about their place in the retail world. Sometime in the 1990s, Borders and Barnes & Noble convinced us that “bookstore” also meant café/reading room/newsstand/record store/gift shop. And since we had so much room on our credit cards, we figured, hey, why not? I’ll get a CD and a $4 cup of coffee with my hardcover.

But in these difficult blah blah blah … people are thriftier. We’re not as easily grabbed by the new releases on the front table and we’re less likely to pick up that $40 recycled-plastic beach toy set. And as we’ve seen over the last year, mega-bookstores are dropping like lords of the flies. Yeah, online retailers and e-books are partly responsible for that, but I can’t help thinking that the concept itself was doomed. I’m no MBA, but if I learned anything running my own store it’s that giant square footage + hugely diverse products + low price points + customer anonymity = crappy profit.

I haven’t completely abandoned brick-and-mortar booksellers, mind you. But all of the non-Amazon book purchases I’ve made over the last year were at one place: the Goodwill bookstore. Charity-based or not, it’s a good business model. They’re in a small, out-of-the-way storefront next to a Chinese restaurant. I get in, browse my way through the three aisles, pick up two-to-five books, and get out, loaded up with reading material as I head for the buffet next door. I can rarely find any specific title that I hoped for ahead of time, but I almost never leave empty-handed.

Burke’s Books in Cooper-Young follows a similar model, which is to say, they sell books. That’s it. And there’s always someone nearby to help or make suggestions, which makes you feel welcome as well as a little more beholden (not a bad thing in a small business). Burke’s has had its own struggles for survival over the years, but they’ve hung on for over a century with nary a latte sold.

I love books. I truly do. My house is practically collapsing under the weight of them. And I deeply love a good bookstore, having been raised in the fertile crescent of independent booksellers. But I think it just might be time for Memphis to reconsider our needs in a bookstore. If we want a place to take our kids to play and hear stories while we browse through books and magazines we have no intention of buying, there’s a big fancy building on Poplar that offers all of those things. But if we actually want to purchase books in Memphis, a city with one of the ten worst literacy rates in the country, we should support the truly local retailers who are striving to improve the literary culture of our community, 800 square feet at a time.

1 comment:

  1. Davis Kidd really isn't a chain store, though. I do buy stuff off their sale table all the time, but yeah, I'd never pay full retail on a book (or most other things) at any book store. The new release hardbacks I've bought in person in recent years have all come from Costco. Yeesh.