Independent Bookstores on Remainder

By Nowak, Mark | The Progressive, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Independent Bookstores on Remainder


Nowak, Mark, The Progressive


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

From where I sit in a bookstore caf, I can see an Olive Garden through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows--though a large vinyl poster advertising "Riveting Thriller! from writer of Prison Break and Law & Order" obscures one corner of my view. Next door, last minute morning commuters file into and out of Krispy Kreme as the K-Mart directly behind it opens its doors.

Where am I? And, more importantly, does it matter?

If you answered America to the first question, anywhere in America, chances are you'd be right. But I'm actually in a Borders in suburban Buffalo, New York. And it should matter.

I grew up here during the economic crises of the Reagan years, when the Bethlehem steel plant where my grandfather worked closed, as did the Westinghouse factory where my dad put in forty-one years. I recently returned to western New York for an event at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center around my essay, "'To commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant': Music and death in Zero City, 1982-1984," that was published in Goth: Undead Subculture. The event is co-sponsored by the longstanding Buffalo independent bookstore, Talking Leaves, that will be selling books at the event, advertised at the top of the store's webpage. But here at Borders in my former hometown, just a mile or so from where my dad's old Westinghouse plant once stood, the self-serve computer informs me that Goth isn't in stock in the 25,000-square-foot store.

Welcome home.

Half the independent bookstores in America have closed their doors in the last decade, as Borders has become a Leviathan. This is precisely the subject of Jacob Bricca's moving new documentary, Indies Under Fire: The Battle far the American Bookstore. The storyline tracks the rise of a people's coalition to fight alongside independent bookstores in Palo Alto (Printer's Inc), Santa Cruz (Bookshop Santa Cruz), and Capitola, California (Capitola Bookshop Caf) against the incursion of big-box stores, particularly Borders.

In the shadow of these once-thriving independents, Bricca's film outlines the rise of Borders, once a 500-square-foot bookstore founded by Tom and Louis Borders in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Acquired by Kmart in 1992, and then spun off three years later, it has grown to more than 500 stores. Borders needs to rigorously defend its 25,000-square-foot colonies in myriad ways. Those with Internet access are frequenting the territories of e-commerce bookstore giant Amazon.com. And even the populace here in suburban Buffalo, this tiny corner of the bookselling universe, has alternatives. Across the street from this Borders outpost, on the faade of the new addition to the massive Walden Galleria Mall, a veil covers the construction site with the brand of one of its enemies: Barnes & Noble Booksellers. It seems that all these square feet of Harry Potter and Veranda magazine just aren't enough for the starved populace of western New York.

Indies Under Fire succinctly catches viewers up on the battle for our book-buying dollars, including such topics as the "display allowances" through which the megapublishers secure prime shelf space in the corporate stores, the rise of e-commerce booksellers such as Amazon.com, the loss of worker and community involvement inside the bookstores themselves, and the sense of the severely narrowing and often eliminated democratic and independent voices in our national bookstore culture.

One of the most telling quotes in the entire film comes from Joe Tosney, a regional director at Borders, as he discusses the differences between corporate and independent models: "As a company, I'm not going to put a sign up and take a political stand because I'm going to offend some of my customers who may have a different feeling about it," he says. …

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