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September 2010

The ascendance of the local bookstore
29 Sep 2010

 A few weeks back, I was invited to go on a tour of San Diego bookstores with the Southern California Independent Bookstores Association -- which is exactly as it sounds, an organization of all the indies in SoCal. About thirty of us piled on a bus and spent the day driving around the Southland, stopping in at a half-dozen bookstores en route. 

Having come from San Francisco, where there are seemingly more indies (including the great indie chain Books Inc) than B&N & Borders, I've been known to bemoan the state of independent bookstores in LA. In all of Los Angeles, there are roughly ten (or so) indies: Skylight, Vromans, Book Soup, Diesel, Stories, and a handful of specialty stores. And yet, even as Barnes & Noble is battling to stay in business, these bookstores are actually thriving. Sure, Duttons closed its doors a few years back, but Skylight, Diesel and Vroman's have all done well enough in the last few years to expand.

The tour of the Southland was equally uplifting. There were bookstores that had been around for years and were thriving (Warwicks in San Diego, Book Works in Del Mar), and also some brand new ones, including Pages in Manhattan Beach -- which, despite just opening this year, is already about to open a second branch in Redondo Beach. 

The optimist in me likes to think that, perhaps, with the superstore bookstores suffering, the tide is turning back towards independents. Superstores (for the most part) don't offer much that you can't also get at Amazon.com (without having to look for parking). They are functional and comprehensive and great for discounts but absolutely impersonal. An independent bookstore, on the other hand, often has personalized charm -- like the displays of obsolete technology at Book Works (pictured above) -- and a staff that not only reads (which, sadly, the staff at superstores don't always do) but that thrives on giving recommendations. One bookseller at Laguna Beach Books told me that she'd hand-sold 500 copies of an otherwise obscure novel that she loved. Her store is blanketed with little hand-written cards recommending books, and the customers flock there for her opinions

Then there are the community events. Book Works, which specializes in science books, has a science lecture series, weekly events for kids, and free live music on Friday nights, and a whole host of book clubs -- despite being smaller than the check-out aisle at your average B&N. These are places where you would actually want to hang out on a Friday night, rather than just grabbing your Eat Pray Love for 50% off and racing next door to Bed Bath & Beyond.

It's telling to me that B&N's newest endeavor is going to be selling personalized teddy bears. Because, you know, nothing says "Call Me Ishmael" like a stuffed plush toy. Still, even though B&N is struggling financially, I certainly don't hope B&N goes out of business - fewer bookstores is bad news for everyone, including the indies. But I do hope that those customers who used to shop at the Lincoln Center B&N, which is now closing, will now to go to the fantastic indie McNally Jackson instead.

And let's also hope that the rise of the ebook doesn't drive the independents out of business altogether. But that's another story for another day.