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Sunday, 29 July 2007


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So sad but true in our town we used to haave a small bookstore called Pembertons, they had another branch in Cambridge I recall. Alonng came the chain discounter bookshop and they were gone. It was the kind of shop that would try to move heaven and earth to get titles for you even if they were odd. They used to get French and Italian Novels for my father when he felt like reading in those great languages for a change, they were a realy good bookstore.
Yesterday I went into the Eagle bookshop on Castle Road (a sort of local area shopping street in Bedford) looking for interesting photography books, being a used bookstore the get sporadic stock of these things but they did say they would email me! And the lady that served me talked about shooting slides and the death of Kodachrome, it made for a very pleasent experiance.

I'm astonished by how genuinely you apologise for writting something in YOUR blog! Do remember that people come here exactly because of your poli-style...

And about the book: lucky me, I stayed away from the Hairy Putter hype, but that's not the point; you're asking customers to go support the store w/ the bigger price! The world isn't exactly a movie, if you saw "You've got mail"...

"Here you have a product so popular that people would buy it no matter how much it costs; so, in order to insure themselves a decent portion of the trade to be done, retailers willingly give away all their potential profit. This is, frankly, insane." Hardly. Yes, demand is high, but it turns out that it's quite easy to print books these days; supply is even higher. This is great for consumers, to be honest, and as I understand it, unsold books can be returned to publishers after some time...

Quite frankly, the alternative is most definitely bad for consumers (Nintendo Wii, I'm looking at you..), and I'm sure local book stores will be able to modify their business models somehow..

not a muggle,
Many local bookstores have already modified their business models...by going out of business. For this, we are the poorer, and no matter how good a deal you get on your Harry Potter book, it will not make up for it.


Say what you will about the Netherlands, where you can have everything your mom doesn't want you to buy, but we do have a fixed book price to protect small book stores. It seems to be working well.

As long as you write better english than most bloggers (which seems to be a habit of yours), feel free to choose any subject you want. And, by the way: writing about books and book stores seem to be a nice start for a column on T.O.P..

Why is it that big companies like Sony and Microsoft can arrange a universal price for their game consoles, so no matter where you buy it, the price is fixed (at least in Holland). In one way this is bad, on the other hand this allows small shops to sell the stuff as well and still make some profit. Could publishers not do something like this? Or am I completely wrong on this?

The way capitalism is being practiced the days of the mom and pop stores are sadly over. If the result had been more affordable quality I wouldn't complain, but what all the large chains are doing is pushing cheap crap. They pose a democratic threat as well since "unpopular" books are harder to come by. Culture is becoming one dimentional. Stalin and Lenin would have loved Wall Mart and the likes. What a great system to keep people square. Not to mention how our health is deteriorating because of the food and drug industry, how the world is heading for ecological disaster, and to top it off, Harry fu$€£ng Potter, man am I glad to not have kids...

...and for the arguably most atmospheric independent bookstore in the world:

In the UK, some small bookshops end up buying their stock of hugesellers like the Harry Potter books and Jamie Oliver recipe books from the supermarkets. Because of the massive discounting it's cheaper that way than getting them from the distributors. There was even a cartoon by Posy Simmonds about this sad state of affairs... http://books.guardian.co.uk/posysimmonds/page/0,,924175,00.html

France has a solution to avoid this situation and protect the small bookstores : fixed price for books so the Wal-Mart chains in this world have no possibility to use the 'cultural' products as a draw.

Hear ye, hear ye!!

Even though I enjoy visiting small, locally owned stores, and I hope they stick around, I have never felt an obligation to make sure they stay in business. I also frequent Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples, Barnes & Noble, etc. I am a working man, and I work too hard for the money I get to pay the mom & pop hardware store $5 more for a gallon of paint just because their store is quaint. Selection and price are what draw me to the big chains. I hear this argument all the time that I should subsidize mom & pop by paying their higher prices and making wasted trips to their store for things they don't have in stock, and it never makes any sense to me. I guess if mom & pop merchant can find enough people who feel differently, they'll stay in business. I don't wish for their demise, but I won't feel guilty or responsible for their failure in business if they don't make it.

I am somewhat of a small merchant myself, occasionally doing portrait sittings on the weekends. Just like anyone, I'd love to be doing more business, but I've never blamed Wal-Mart or Olan Mills and their volume pricing for my inability to crack the big time as a portrait photographer. I alone am responsible for my success or failure in business, not the big chains.

Hi Mike,

I've noticed a lot of small bookstores hanging on lately. I mean, people have been talking about the death of small bookstores for ages. In Portland Maine, there are at least 5. It's not a big town. There are as many there as I remember there being in Boston. And they're all great.

I'm wondering if the first wave of bookstores died for various unprofitable reasons, and now the ones that survived are going to survive. At least, that's what I hope.

If you ever want to go to bookstore heaven, go to Portland, Maine. It's a great town in all respects, but the bookstores are amazing.


The solution seems to be obvious. The small bookstore owner should wander over to Walmart and buy the book there and then sell them at B&N prices. If they run low on stock another Wally World run is called for.

I hardly think Harry Potter is to blame for the demise of the small bookstore. Honestly, a book that children and young adults read because they want to read it seems like a good thing to me.

I think the problem is that this is the way large stores, like Walmart, do business. I went to a big box store t buy groceries yesterday because that is the only place I can buy groceries around here. Over the last few years store after store has closed until all that is left within 20 miles is the mega store.

Harry Potter may be an example of the way these companies do business, but it is just one example.

as much as I like small funny smelling bookstores Im guilty of being a part of there demise under the new world order. how does the used book system work? like for old and out of print books, I have bought several used books from smaller bookstores through amazon couldnt seem to get a copy of A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up And Tied His Horse To Me anywhere in japan. (probably not all that small of a shop come to think about it) and they likely received some pittance for it. but for me the alternatives are a learn Japanese beyond my current level and buy translated versions from local stores or get scalped in the foreign books section in a big bookstore in the city. that or stop reading.


It's your blog, write what you like. Personally I enjoy your "off topics" as much as your photography posts, wouldn't mind seeing more. Keep up the good work.


Mike, I happen to think that blogging on different topics makes your site way more interesting, mostly because you are great writer with interesting observations. It might not work as well with some other writer. Good writing is always joyful to read, no matter the topic. And I've learned so much!

We, in central Massachusetts, have a similar story to tell with the closing of Tatnuck Booksellers. A lot of tears were shed, too.

It's like all things - increasing competition means smaller businesses simply have to differentiate themselves on something other than price. Bookstores do that by focusing on specific product ranges etc. Yes it's a shame, but as a consumer I prefer to get my "commodity" type product at the lowest possible price, and pay a premium only for things which are harder to locate.

It actually goes back to the manufacturer/publisher. If they chose to maintain a certain profit percentage on the sale of this book they could. They could contractually obligate the retailers to a certain selling price. Regretfully, money talks and the big box stores have a lot of power.
This very discussion is what is happening around the country to small independent camera store owners.

In my present neighborhood the local ultra-small bookstores with a good stock of used books, some photographic, didn't even attempt to carry it. The nicest of the larger stores in the areas, Booksmith, organized the local merchants in a three-hour Potterfest scavenger hunt that kept my kids quite occupied (but filled them with a barely opposable lust for expensive Hogwarts robes and cheesy plastic wands. Sadly, when I returned to Booksmith at 1 am for my copy, they had closed and I was forced to wait half an hour line at Barnes and Noble down the block (who had played no part in the evening's fun and games) for my cheaper 40%-off copy. If you add the $12 that Amazon charges for 2-day shipping of its 49% off $17 copy, the 40% off at B&N and the 20% off at the more likeable Booksmith for immediate delivery look pretty reasonable. I think matters are saner than you fear.

I'm not embarrassed to have finished the book two days after it was public. Or proud, either.

[sarcasm alert]

Quote by poster Barbu:

"I'm astonished by how genuinely you apologise for writting something in YOUR blog! Do remember that people come here exactly because of your poli-style..."

Au contraire, Barbu. Not only should we pressure Mike to not write "off topic" in his own blog, we also need to start attempting to control his style of photography AND what equipment he uses . . . .

[end sarcasm alert]

Seriously, though, Barbu echos what the overwhelming majority of readers feel. It's your blog, and we are gracious guests.

Besides, it isn't just "photography talk" that spawns photographs. Maybe I will go out and try to find a small bookstore with Deathly Hollows displayed in the window right beside a "going out of business" sign.

Having worked at both types of bookstore over the years, I can tell you from an employee's perspective, the following:
Independent store = grinding poverty.
Chain store = working poor.
(Working poor is better.)
And yes, unsold stock is returned to the distributor.

I would offer that the four independent bookstores (in Minneapolis and Chicago) that I've purchased the last four Harry Potter books all charged full price. In fact, I, and many people I know, went to those independent bookstores because we know it is the one publishing event that can lift a bookstore into the black as many won't blink at paying full-price. Yes, inventory is an issue, but inventory is always an issue. My observation has been that independent bookstores have excelled with Harry Potter exactly where they've always excelled: service. Which is exactly why I'll continue shopping there.

No problems with the off-topic. I like the subjects you pick and the style in which you write (particularly like the SA*).

As for small stores in general (not just book stores), one problem they have is stocking the stuff you want. I visit a lot of cycle stores (I have a fleet of bikes to keep on the road) and all to frequently the stock is limited, the prices outrageous and the service poor. Those that are surviving are moving away from the mass-market into niche areas, specialising in good service & high knowledge. Thise that do, prosper. I think the same will have to happen with most other small sellers. Customers will stay loyal to stores that can offer these things.

I've heard many people bemoan the loss of small stores but when pressed they admit to buying little from them. Remember, shops aren't just there to look at: buy something if you want it to stay in business.

A brilliantly chosen off topic subject Mike, it has brought out the political instinct in many of your respondents and while the main question raised seems to be how we cope with the inevitable small business crushing forces of capitalism, to me the question is this :-
Has life in the modern world become so boring and unfulfilling that millions of adults care laud praise on works of fantasy fiction.
Surely the world we live in is weird and interesting enough that reading a good biography should be sufficient, why the need for all this fantasy nonsense?

Cheers, Robin (Tolkien, H Potter & Star Wars hater)

I think a lot of people like the idea of small booksellers much more than the reality of them. Some years ago I saw a group of luminaries chatting on a C-Span new year's day roundtable and one of them (I think it was David Halberstam) described Borders as a national treasure and a rare example of corporate exceptionalism that had created something truly great for people who love books.

I completely agree. For actually finding and acquiring new books, any Borders I've ever been in simply blows away ALL independent sellers I've patronized in the past 35 years. That's just reality.

At the same time, I am one of the many folks here in the Bay Area who try to support independents like Kepler's in Menlo Park and Diesel in Berkeley, but not because they are a superior source of books. I do it because I like their ambiance and feel that they add a lot to the charming neighborhoods where they are located. But the truth is, this has nothing to do with actually finding and acquiring books; it's really about lifestyle and nostalgia. I never find "unique, quirky treasures" at these stores that I can't find at Borders. It's been this way for over a decade now.

The great exceptions to this are good used bookstores, of which we have many here. If there is a future for independent booksellers, that's where you'll find it.


"Many local bookstores have already modified their business models... by going out of business."

Again I disagree. Bookstores around college campuses and in many intellectual communities still thrive, largely because they've identified their market and model properly (used scholarly and specialty books).

In their case, they have a model which gives them an advantage over mail order and big box: they provide a convenient place to recycle books which are needed in the community but maybe not so widely popular. Furthermore, the large booksellers (namely Amazon, Alibris, Abebooks) all offer them a channel to do business online.

"For this, we are the poorer, and no matter how good a deal you get on your Harry Potter book, it will not make up for it."

So, I've never read a Harry Potter book, but I think it's great that it was so easily and cheaply available from hour one day one. In general, I think it's absolutely fantastic that these days I can more or less order any book ever published on the internet, practically directly from whoever is distributing it (the large online booksellers tend to drop-ship), for around or below retail (or choose from a large number of small used bookstores who have taken advantage of online channels) and have it on my door in about two days. That is undeniably good for the me, and I think not hard to argue that it's good for the consumer in general as well.

Yes, small bookstores are quaint, and great, but I have full faith that those who operate them can adapt to the changes in the market and find their profit in some way aside from being dusty and disorganized. This could be things like comfy chairs, gourmet coffee, or just the huge convenient used selection of a store like Powell's. There are really other business models under the sun, and I would argue that technology has made the small collection of books model somewhat obsolete; it's a romantic idea to be surrounded by scattershot collection of miscellaneous volumes, but when you actually need to find and read books, it breaks down pretty quickly, to be honest.

Greetings from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the birthplace of Borders Books (and still home to its headquarters). Borders started as an incredible independent book store. I spent many many hours there. It had two things going for it (besides starting in a university town in which books are as essential as oxygen): 1. It had an incredible depth of stock, and 2. The staff were unbelievably knowledgeable about books.

Number 2 occurred because many of the staff seemed to be permanently in the process of pursuing their PhD in English or some similar topic. They were either working on it, or writing their thesis, or taking their exams, or between jobs in the English department. In any case, you could walk up to almost anyone and say, "I'm looking for the book by Whatyamacallit about Mongolian Ponies climbing Mt. Everest. Or maybe it was Siberian Tigers climbing the Empire State Building, I'm not really sure..." And they would walk right over to the shelf and hand it to you.

The depth of stock existed because the Borders brothers invented a computer based inventory system in which they placed a small computer card in each book which they collected at the register at the time of sale (this was in the era before PCs and scanning). They then frequently ran these cards and ended up with the first real time "just in time" book inventory system. With this system they could stock just one or two copies of a huge variety of books which allowed for the huge inventory depth without having to have a large number of each book on hand. They could also tell immediately if a book was starting to take off in sales and order more. This inventory system represents the Borders brothers contribution to the book world and it is what allowed mega-bookstores to exist. The Borders long ago sold Borders Books to Kmart, who later spun it off as a separate company. The inventory system persists in updated form. The staff, for the most part, do not. Store "number one" in Ann Arbor still has a few of the literature lovers of old working there, but the realities of corporate HR policies and chain store ambiance has eliminated the rest.

I miss the Borders of old, but I am still grateful for the inventory system that they invented. It allows me to walk into any Borders store in any town and be fairly sure that they will have the book that I want. I prefer to frequent small home grown booksellers, but when traveling it is not so easy to find them. I don't always want to wait a few days for Amazon to deliver. And, I still love sitting around in a store filled with books. Even if it's a chain store in a strip mall.

Hurrah to TOP for supporting the small bookshops of the world! I live in a small town where the only bookstore is the one my organization runs in a National Park visitor center nearby. For books outside the narrow focus of our store, I have to wait until I have the time and gas money to travel a couple of hours to the nearest small city to get access to a good independent bookshop. This is painful at times as I spent most of my life in LA where I had access to many shops on a daily basis. We have a Wal-Mart here, but I refuse to enter the gates of hell.

Hm... I must know Toronto very bad, because in my nighbourhood there is only one kind of booksore: Chapters/Indigo. I ignore it because it is 1 - monopoly; 2 - expensive; 3 - bad choice of books. So, I've got my copy of HP-7 from the newsstand at I don't know which discount but anyways, it is a total waste of money. I'd better had it donated to some `hole in the wall` store if I could find one.

The book is not a disappointment. IT IS CRAP! She obviously does not care about her reader. I did not know that such bad style English could be so popular. I was sort of slow-burning fan of HP series observing every next book getting worse. But this one is a real disaster. Too bad for J.K. Until #7 she had a chance to stand in the history of literature (as commercial achiever, at least) but now..... In 20 years all series will be on garage sales for 50 cents and noone will buy it. That is as much as she deserves.

Sorry for spilling my emotions.

My daughter has a part time job in a chain bookstore. With all the discounting going on, they were making $1.80 on each copy.

Greetings. Some independent bookstores adjust... our local store held a Harry Potter party with a lesser discaount (30%) than at the chain stores. Lines around the block (local folks support independents). But the kicker is the store was prepared. I stood there looking at this line and thought do I really want to wait for an hour or so to get this book, now (it's midnight). A friend happened along and said the last time a Potter book came out they did 1500 books in 15 minutes. Ah, go on! No, really! So I waited for my book... the line moved... I got back to my car with my book at 12:14...

People will still pay for service and develop loyalties and relationships. Big chains most often can't compete there.

Oh, and sorry dibutil didn't enjoy the book I thought it was great.


Our local independent bookstore thrived until Barnes and Noble came to town. I could never figure out why... they charged full price for everything--fair enough-- but getting them to stop talking to each other or their friends to even take ones money was a chore. Getting them--and I'm speaking of the owners here-- to do a special order required an act of the deity.

Barnes and Noble came to town with at least as big a selection, some good prices, uninspired but efficient service at the register.

So why were the local owners so unresponsive? They had a monopoly. Until they didn't. Good riddance. B&N was a godsend in my town.

Maybe you woul be interested to know that here in France we have a law to protect little book shops : the law say the price of book are controlled, meaning you can't drop the price more than 5% off.

I guess for an american that sound awfull, but really it works pretty well : price of books are not higher in france more than any country, book shops are somewhat protected against such attacks as 50% off books in huge shops… well you know it's the old french idea that culture can't be considered the same as tomatoes or Coke bottles etc.

As any system, there are some perversion of the system : it's not because you can't sell books 50% off that it means you can't buy them 50% because your much bigger. But in another hand theres still lots of indepent book shops around and i'm sure they agree the law is better than anything.

I think the assumption about the impact of mega-scale chains is just as simple. Small book stores have to provide added value, which translates into knowledge and research.
Here in Austria, many small book stores closed despite price-binding. Simply, because there was no added value for the customer. Those stores had assorted stock of best-sellers and less known books. For the most part, those "low-sellers" were publisher recommendations, packages to spice up volume sales, discount sales or recommendations by customer X.

Those shops who survived (only 3-4 for a 300.000 city), invested a lot into knowing their books and customers. Something, that translates into joy (pick and background info), prestige (gifts!) and savings (time) for me. If they fail at service (salespeople with no dedication) and price: rest in peace.

Plenty of small shops and speciality markets opened around here, filling the gaps with more or less success. Unfortunately, expertise and dedication does not substitute business sense either and so i doubt it's possible to draw any conclusion on the future of those stores.
Talking to the shop-owner of my choice, he said that H.P. brought plenty of youths into reading better fantasy. With Rowling delivering literature quality above most of the Hyper-Market shelves, customers come in frequently, asking for books that can meet or exceed and he's happy to serve.

Well, I can't think of a small bookstore to visit nearby ... though a week+ ago, while on vacation on Cape Cod, I bought a couple things from a small bookstore there. And just last week I bought new locks for our house from the local hardware store, rather than the nearby Home Depot & Lowe's (which I avoid like the plague). Amazing - I was in & out with 3 locks, keyed alike plus spare keys in the time it would have taken me to park, walk in and find the lock aisle in HD ... never mind try to find a competent warm body there. Though I suppose if I'd gone to Home Depot or Lowe's maybe I could have picked up the Harry Potter book while I was there - my wife wants a copy for her birthday.

Barbu wrote:
"I'm astonished by how genuinely you apologise for writting something in YOUR blog! Do remember that people come here exactly because of your poli-style..."

I'm not sure Mike is apologizing so much as trying to head off the inevitable objections from people who like to grump about everything that doesn't go their way (i.e. "keep writing about XXX and I'll stop reading your blog"). I don't see eye to eye with Mike, politically, but am happy to read anything well-written & well-thought. And, of course, it's HIS BLOG !!!

Small bookstores, record stores, camera shops, clothing stores, etc are better than ever -- more selection, better staff, more flexible payment methods, and a lot of computerization. It's consumers who have changed -- they have been offered low prices and bulk selection and all else being equal they will err on this side.

An independent shop's flexibility is its biggest asset in creating inequality between themselves and the big guys. Not sidled with a board of directors and layers of national management, a small store can truly innovate in the areas of selection and service. Certainly you can't have as many books as a chain bookstore, but what you can have is better books -- cater to a niche that they can't or don't fill, find rare books and first editions in that niche and sell them alongside the newest stuff. Create targeted book clubs and encourage them to meet in the store. Be friendly and knowledgeable and outstrip the competition in obvious ways.

The stores I visit that do these things well can charge what they have to and I'll still go.

Give me a reason to patronize the local store and I will. However, many years ago I bought a camera from an independent camera store, both to support my local businessman and for the service I expected if the camera didn't work. As it happened, there was something wrong with the camera, so I took it back to the store, where the owner said, "It's under warranty; just take it to a repair shop." My next several cameras I ordered from New York.

There is a small independent bookstore, one of the last in the city, a ten-minute walk from my home in Saint Paul. Every time we walk by it my wife complains about how drab and uninviting the window displays are. I rarely shop there because it rarely stocks books that interest me. My wife would have bought The Deathly Hallows there, but like almost all American bookstores, it stocks only the Americanized version. Because we both prefer the flavor of the original British language Harry Potter, she ordered from Amazon.co.uk instead.

By the way, we both enjoy the Harry Potter books, even though my wife insists she does not like fantasy.

"I went to my local independent bookstore this evening...but it was, um, closed, because they close early on Sundays. So I went to Barnes & Noble and ended up buying a couple of remainders."

After your polemic, I'm glad to see you confess to being caught on the horns of the dilema.

I live in a rapidly developing part of San Antonio where you can watch the strip malls and big box stores replace wooded lots on a daily basis. Given all the shopping that already exists 10 min away, do I really need any 5 min away?

Yet I know I'll shop there once they build it.

Capitalism may be somewhat soul-less, but it's efficient.

"Some readers object to off-topic posts, so I've decided to start writing them on a regular basis."

That sentence is a beautiful pearl of curmudgeonry, and I heartily approve of the sentiment.

Delicious irony: local bookstores are in trouble but at the end of the article you solicit readers of your blog to buy books at Amazon.com to support you.

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