But now the holiday season is upon us and that means, of course, a time to reflect. Today is Black Friday, and it feels like a particularly tense one as retailers hope to make some good money despite a seemingly endless recession. I'm pleased to see that American Express is supporting local business through their "Small Business Saturday" campaign, though I don't quite understand what they're doing. Still, any reminder to buy local is a good one, even as I drove by Best Buy and other big ugly box stores last night to ogle the damn fools camped out outside.
For us book lovin' and publishin' types, there are a few things to note. Publishers and booksellers have jumped into the stack of pleas to shoppers for this Friday. Borders actually had a circular in Thursday's Boston Globe, and I got a Groupon today for discounts on Simon & Schuster books when one buys directly from the website. Both of these ads surprised me, and then I wondered why. I suppose I have some weird sense that booksellers and publishers - especially the latter - should be above such advertising. Leave it to department and discount stores! I was also surprised to see an e-book reader advertised in the CVS circular. I can't imagine that's a good product, on sale in a drugstore for $99 (AFTER rebate, admittedly).
In these ads, it seems to me, we have made tangible the place of books in our modern culture. The printed book may be disappearing from stores, off shelves, and out of bags heading to the airport - I had many friends ask me, as I prepared for a trip down to Texas, whether I had a Kindle or Ipad so I didn't have to carry books with me, God forbid - but when one includes e-books unproblematically into the equation, there are more books than ever, and perhaps more readers. We clearly are once again in an age, similar to the appearance of the mass market paperback, when books are filtering into places where they have not been or have been less visible, such as Sunday newspaper circulars, drugstores, and emailed coupons. This means sellers are reaching out to a wider readership, just as sales reps started selling spinners for paperbacks to the convenience stores in train stations in the '20s.
I want to have hope, or at least have less concern by putting this trend into historical context, but I still don't know what it might mean for independent booksellers. I was in Houston on Monday where I went by Brazos Bookstore, a fantastic independent that I have visited before. (Sadly, I had to get to the airport and miss going to Murder by the Book down the street, which looks so cool.) As I was purchasing Jay Parini's Why Poetry Matters, my sister and I chatted with the cashier. (I was looking for poetry books - Gerald Stern, Elizabeth Gerstler, W. H. Auden - but they didn't happen to have the ones I wanted, so I picked up this book which I didn't know I wanted but have enjoyed - you know how this works.) (I should note that The Strand in NYC didn't have any books by these poets last week either - !!!) My sister pointed out that she'd love to support the store and others like it more but couldn't afford to, and "it's hard with Half-Price Books around." The cashier graciously admitted that she buys books there, too, and online sometimes, such as first editions through ABEbooks.com. She rightly identified that as consumers we can spread our bucks around, but we should include indies when we do that. (No one mentioned that online bookseller who should not be spoken.)
At the counter, I picked up a pamphlet for the Friends of Brazos Bookstore program, which is a great way to support your local independent even as you, in a weak moment, shop elsewhere. You join the program at whatever level suits you best - I don't have the pamphlet in front of me but there are tiers, down to a very reasonable $50 perhaps - and you get discounts based on your level. You also hear about all the great events there.
As we head into the overheated holiday gift-buying season, of course you should support your local independent stores. I know I for one feel very gratified by gifts of memberships or donations, and you might be surprised to find others do, too. Ask! But if you know your loved one wants something special, something more tangible, look at your Sunday circulars - themselves some consider a relic, though they seem more numerous this year than in the past - and find the book-related ad you never thought you'd find, and see if any books are advertised that might just work. Then drop the circular and head to your local and pick it up.
More holiday-themed posts to come, I'm sure!