On the books
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.”