Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Drinking the Kool-Aid

I've been waiting patiently for Christopher to post again, but he's really dragging his heels. Apparently the London Book Fair and other assorted Euro-traveling really took it out of him. I know, I know, it's pretty pathetic. I mean, he didn't exactly sail around the world, but still...

So Shelf Awareness had a link to this post from a Barnes & Noble employee who also blogs. In the post, this "tgrJams" argues that his Barnes & Noble store, in fact, is "local" to Bakersfield, CA, since he and the other employees are very much a part of that community and he, as store manager (I believe), plans events and charitable donations that are geared towards the community. He's resisting this call to buy local in which people forgo his store for a locally owned one. He adds to this argument in a response to the one comment posted (when I was there anyway).

So I wrote an eloquent, cutting but kind response and tried to post it, but the blog is connected to a newspaper and you have to log-in and it all went to crap, so I'll just comment here. Why am I so insistent on commenting? Because his post is infuriating. I fear this man has really taken a giant gulp of the B&N Kool-Aid.

He keeps acting like a massive corporation like B&N is no different than a bookstore owner. The owner gets the profits, the owner might invest those profits in a house outside the "local" town, the owner just follows the "book craze" of the moment just like B&N, so they're all putting out the same books. He even, at one point, makes a pitch about buying B&N shares! He did it - you can too!

Holy crazy.

In my reply that will never get posted there, I mentioned that I have worked at a B&N, as well as a Borders. The control from the national headquarters - HQ if you will - is strong. Those front tables - and endcaps, and A tables, etc - are not following book crazes, they are manufacturing them based on how much $$ publishers have paid for the space. This disproportionately hurts small presses who can't afford the space, obviously. And the blogger does not go near distribution issues. The fact is, an order from B&N can set a print run, and that includes a small order that really hurts the book. I've seen that happen in my job. The orders are made with a vast majority of shoppers in mind, not minority shoppers - and I mean that in every sense of the word. This system hurts niches, most visibly African American fiction and non-fiction. Walk into most B&N's and the selection of books by and for African Americans is sorely lacking. Now I'm all for this being the case if a store specializing in books of African American interest is or can open, but if B&N puts that store out of business, they are not picking up the slack and serving those customers. They are similarly lacking in glbt books and books in woman's studies. Some of these niche areas have strong books that are self-published, and authors can get them sold at local bookstores by going in personally and making arrangements. That will be difficult at a B&N, where all decisions for display or products to sell are made nationally.

He also tries to say something about the great B&N staff. Ya know, if the B&N is near a college or in a city, they can get desperate liberal arts majors looking for work who are often good readers. Great. But they are paying practically minimum wage. I think I may have made $6.50 or $7 an hour in downtown Boston. So if you get a staff person there who actually knows books - wonderful, you're a lucky shopper. But let's face it: you're benefiting from a marketplace in which there are few jobs for those interested in ideas, valuing instead one's ability to use powerpoint and glad hand. With independent bookstores, these employees are much more a part of the process often times, and can take a bit more pride in their work. They get to know their store and their customers, and their customers' interests.

The worst is that those under payed employees cannot wear jeans or sneakers. Ridiculous. And when I worked the registers at B&N, I had to go into a little windowless room every night at the end of my shift, count down my drawer as an assistant manager watched over me, and then mark on a dry erase board the amount my drawer was off and the amount of money coming in and the number of B&N membership cards I sold. I had to write it myself so I'd really see those numbers - off $.25! Only sold 2 cards! And then a manager at one point sat me down to get me to push the $25 membership cards harder. At that conversation, he also told me that books were a stagnant market, so B&N was re-arranging the store to sell more gifts and stationery and things.

Yep, they bankrupt local bookstores so they can sell you the Disney version of Monopoly.

I don't know what I want from this "tgrJames," but the mix of supposed straight talk and corporate propanganda was just too intense for me to ignore.

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