23 September 2010

The conversation continues...

Last week we started a conversation with Christie Olson Day, owner of Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino. We continue that chat now.

I asked Christie “How's your level of confidence, and what are your expectations, generally speaking, going forward, for the independent bookselling industry?”

She replied, “Regarding the future of independent bookselling, I think the only sensible answer is, ‘I don't know.’ Anyone who says anything else is just pretending. I don't mind taking some guesses, though, and of course I'm professionally obligated to place my bets and take my chances.

“I'm betting that there will be thriving indie bookstores 20 years from now.  How many? I'm not sure. But I'm doing my best to make sure Mendocino ends up with one of them. Indies have prevailed against big-box bookstores in the print-book business. (I know, it might be a little premature to declare a definitive victory, but I'm pretty confident on this.) I think we might just be able to pull off the same David-versus-Goliath miracle in e-book land if we can stay in the fight long enough.

“The American Booksellers Association is, right now, working out an agreement that will make a huge selection of e-books available through your local bookseller. The challenge will be to raise awareness of the fact that you don't have to go to a giant corporation to get your e-books. We haven't done a good job of this so far. Most of our customers have no idea that e-books have been available on our website for two years now, and the selection is going to get exponentially better this winter.

“I'm encouraged by the fact that people keep opening bookstores, and local governments actively recruit them. I'm encouraged when I see people realizing that locally owned businesses are the backbone of our communities. I'm encouraged by movements like the 3/50 Project (Pick 3 stores. Spend $50. Save your local economy.) I'm encouraged by the fact that there are still absolutely awesome indie record stores out there, even in the age of iPods.

“I get discouraged by readers' expectations that e-books should cost almost nothing. I wish people understood that most of the cost of a book comes from production of the content, not the object. I think the biggest danger to the culture of reading, right now, comes from the pricing pressure exerted by amazon on publishers. There's never been good money in writing, publishing or bookselling; folks did it because it was good work, and with luck and hard work you could scrape by, financially. If the price of a book is $10, it doesn't matter whether it's printed or digital; professional publishing will be dead in the water. And if you've ever read an unedited manuscript, you know that's a great, great loss.

“About the only thing that makes me really angry in the business is the predatory, dishonest, destructive tactics used by our big-business competitors, particularly Wal-Mart and Amazon. They're villains, pure and
simple. They're bad for our communities and our culture, and before the changes wrought by the Reagan administration they would both have been broken up under our anti-trust laws.

I asked,  “Is it still easy to find people who want to work in a bookstore, despite the well-known drawbacks such as modest compensation? Is it true everyone must have a PhD to be considered?

Christie said, “It's encouraging that so many fantastic people do still want to work in bookstores. No, you don't need a PhD ... you don't even have to know a whole lot about books before you start. You do, however, have to WANT to know a whole lot. And you have to love, really love, people. We have some of the most talented, creative, committed people you can possibly imagine. They care SO MUCH about this work.

“Best part of the job? I never, ever, wonder if what I'm doing is worthwhile. Thanks for asking!”


Christie recommends “Barry Lynn's excellent book, ‘Cornered: the New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction,’ about consolidation in retail and the government's re-interpretation of antitrust laws under Reagan.”

“Cornered” by Barry Lynn. John Wiley & Sons hard cover $26.95. ISBN  0470186380. Paperback $16.95, to be published by Wiley on January 18, 2011 ISBN 0470928565.

Here’s a bit I had to leave out of the script above for lack of time:

“Recently we had a really remarkable experience with a local student who worked for us over the summer. Celeste Fox-Kump was our first-ever Youth Summer Intern, working in the store between her 7th and 8th grade years.  She went through an introductory program, learning a bit about many different aspects of the business. She was so capable, enthusiastic, hard-working, smart, and YOUNG, her presence brought a burst of energy to the whole operation.

“With any luck my own kids will qualify for the same program when they get
to middle school. The only thing I can say about balancing work and family life is that families need a homemaker. Obviously I don't think that the mother always needs to fill that role, but it IS important and necessary work.  So any family in which both parents work demanding full-time jobs is going to face a challenge. You have to either hire a homemaker or share that third job between you, which can lead to some spectacular disagreements. (Not in our house, of course. I'm speaking in generalities.) In our case, it's nice that the kids can share in both our jobs. Collin has his dad as a teacher this year, and both kids spend plenty of time at the bookshop.”

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