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Don’t Worry, Be Happy: A Defense of the Big Chain Bookstores

- February 6, 2008

I’m a lover of bookstores. I’ve never been a fan of the big chain bookstores — Borders and Barnes & Noble. (I’m not sure whether the first word of the preceding sentence should have been “But” or “So,” so I just went ahead without either.) Give me a choice and I’ll take Politics and Prose, a great store that’s close to where I live in DC, or Olsson’s, a local chain, but only in desperation am I likely to enter one of the big box stores.

Anyway, that was my frame of mind when I recently “discovered” Brooke Allen’s article “Two — Make That Three — Cheers for the Chain Bookstores” online here. The article was published several years ago, but it was new to me and it still seems quite timely.

As the title of the article indicates, Allen is a defender of the chains, and I must say that I find some of her points pretty convincing, though perhaps overstated.

Read the article and make up your own mind, or, if you’d like a quick overview of some of the high points, keep reading.

* “To a real reader, the charge [that the chains are big and overstocked] is absurd; there is no such thing as overstocked, and more is, quite simply, better. The superstores have given readers, writers, and publishers an invaluable gift: shelf room.” The chains “have a vastly wider choice of books; the titles may not be lovingly handpicked or personally sold, but they’re there.”

* What about the charge “that the superstores are impersonal and full of ignorant salespeople? After several months of sampling both chains and independents, I have come to the conclusion that the average chain salesperson is neither more nor less ignorant than his or her counterpart in the independents.” (Editorial comment: Here I have to enter a dissent. This has not been my experience.)

* “Another accusation leveled against the chains is that they promote best sellers at the expense of ‘midlist’ titles … [However, a recent report] demonstrates that the chains, with their tremendous capacity, have given not a blow but a boost to midlst titles.”

* “Wonderful though many of the independents were (and are), … the fact is that most of the good ones were clustered in the big cities, leaving a sad gap in America’s smaller cities and suburbs — the places, in fact, where most of the American population actually lives. …Smaller cities have also benefited. …The chains, in short, have met a need, especially for those living outside the great urban centers, and they have done this … at a time when public libraries have ceased to meet that need. In the past decade or so libraries have had to invest a large portion of their never-very-lavish budgets on computers, Internet connections, and software. As a result many libraries’ book budgets and general services have been curtailed.” “Before the appearance of the chains, a relatively highbrown, urban clientele shopped at the independents, and a relatively lowbrow, largely regional one bought mass-market titles at supermarkets, price clubs, and drugstores. Now, thanks to the chains and to Internet sales, the vast territory between the two extremes has been bridged.”

* “Readers are faced with an embarrassment of riches, writers with an unprecedented array of outlets. The good independents are managing to hang on to their customers and even to attract new ones; small presses are thriving; the chains and the Internet between them have made a wide variety of books more easily available, in more places and to more people, than ever before.”

In short, don’t worry, be happy. After reading this article, I still do worry, but I’m happier than I was before.

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