On the books

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

When Black Swan Books opened in 1996, on North Meadow back then, very few book sales oc­curred on­line. To­day, with Ama­zon and other on­line re­tail­ers mak­ing life dif­fi­cult for in­de­pen­dent book­stores — but unimag­in­ably con­ve­nient for book buy­ers — rel­a­tively few are pur­chased in brick-and-mor­tar stores. Nick Cooke, who owns Black Swan, says less than 25 per­cent of his sales were tak­ing place in his Main and Robin­son shop, where he has been lo­cated since 2003, which is why he is mov­ing his op­er­a­tions once again, this time to a ware­house near The Di­a­mond. We’re “ad­just­ing,” Cooke says, with an em­pha­sis on — yes — on­line sales. The new lo­ca­tion will be open “by ap­point­ment or by chance. Sure, you can show up and knock on the door. If we are there, we will an­swer.”

Other in­de­pen­dent book­sell­ers have ad­justed in dif­fer­ent ways. Al­though we are not privy to their books — the fi­nan­cial ones, that is — Chop Suey and Foun­tain seem to be do­ing well. They are event spa­ces as well as re­tail­ers, host­ing gath­er­ings of au­thors and read­ers. They are also great places to browse. Pol­i­tics and Prose in Washington, D.C., has dis­tin­guished it­self as a premier site for au­thors to show­case their work, with their book talks fre­quently tele­vised na­tion­wide. Sec­ond Story Books, also in Washington, hosts no events but might be the sin­gle best place to graze for books in the en­tire mid-At­lantic.

Will in­de­pen­dent brick-and-mor­tar book­stores ever be too big to fail? Not hardly, but the day may come when well-mean­ing law­mak­ers will want to save this en­dan­gered species with sub­si­dies and other forms of tax­payer-fi­nanced as­sis­tance. Here the ex­pe­ri­ence of Strand Books in New York’s Green­wich Vil­lage might be in­struc­tive. Strand, with its “18 Miles of Books,” has been op­er­at­ing for al­most 100 years, es­tab­lish­ing it­self, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times, as a “cen­ter of lit­er­ary life in Lower Man­hat­tan.” You can get lost in Strand Books, which might not be such an un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence, de­pend­ing on how much you love to read.

Now New York City’s Land­marks Preser­va­tion Com­mis­sion wants to give Strand a city land­mark des­ig­na­tion. This would be a great honor, of course, but get this: Nancy Bass Wy­den, the owner of the store as well as the build­ing that houses it, doesn’t want the honor. She says the reg­u­la­tions that would go with the des­ig­na­tion would jack up the costs to main­tain and ren­o­vate the build­ing. “By land­mark­ing the Strand,” Wy­den says, “you can also de­stroy a piece of New York his­tory.”

It is also pos­si­ble to hurt in­de­pen­dent book­sell­ers by sub­si­diz­ing their com­pe­ti­tion. It is not lost on Wy­den that Ama­zon’s Jeff Be­zos, “the rich­est man in Amer­ica, who’s a di­rect com­peti­tor, has just been handed $3 bil­lion in sub­si­dies” for open­ing new op­er­a­tions in New York — and an only slightly more mod­est pack­age for one in North­ern Vir­ginia. “I’m not ask­ing for money or a tax re­bate,” Wy­den says. “Just leave me alone.”

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