Why Bookstores?

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  November 23, 2010

Back when I started, it seemed like the newspaper reported beloved indies closing every day. From then until my last shift this summer, customers would approach me behind the counter and declare their fealty to the store in tones both solemn and proud. "I support you," "I always shop here," "I love you," even "Thank God for you."

As their numbers declined, independent bookstores have grown in the popular imagination. What were workaday retail outlets now serve as emblems of a vanished way of life, one that values community and, well, books.

Bookstores aren't public institutions — though free-range toddlers and napping homeless people might lead customers to think otherwise. Although they exist to move product, customers don't seem to think of their local independent as commercial. Sometimes I got the impression that my customers saw paying $30 for a new hardcover as an act of civic charity, like supporting public radio.

A recent Onion news item crystallized these feelings of inclusion and largesse. "All Those Years Shopping at Independent Bookstore Wasted," read the September headline. " 'I put so much time into supporting my quirky local bookshop, with its charming window displays and us-versus-the-world attitude, and for what?' " asked a fictional shopper. " 'Countless hours wasted quietly browsing their shelves when I could have just ordered this shit for way cheaper online.' " Over 2000 Facebook users shared the story.

That "us-versus-the-world attitude" fosters a personal, emotional connection between customers and brick-and-mortars with delightfully mismatched signs.

For this reason, Paul Siegenthaler sends out a press release when he puts a new bookstore on the market. "That's a little bit unique for our business," he said. Businesses not dependent on customer loyalty can change hands without pomp and circumstance. "Usually, things are sold under the cover of darkness," says Siegenthaler.

When Frank Kramer tapped Siegenthaler to help him sell the Harvard Book Store, he wasn't looking for just any buyer. The sale announcement called for someone "who knows and loves the store for what it has been, and who has a vision for a future that honors our unique history."

After Kramer closed the sale, he sent an e-mail to customers anointing the new owner as his successor. "A graduate of Harvard, a loyal Harvard Book Store customer for over 30 years . . . Jeff Mayersohn is the ideal new owner for Harvard Book Store," he wrote. Translation: rest easy, he is one of us.

Siegenthaler refers to bookstores as "legacy businesses". Instead of the latest, cheapest, and most efficient, these stores sell what Siegenthaler identifies as "things that other places don't carry, and an expertise you won't find in other stores." Bookstores are often legacy businesses, but so are mom-and-pop hardware stores, or stationery stores like Bob Slate or the Bromfield Pen Shop.

That expertise doesn't come cheap for the consumer or proprietor. Bookstores are the kind of business that requires their owners to sweat blood. "If you treat it like any other business," says Siegenthaler, "it will lose that connection with the community."

But these days, elbow grease and a cat aren't enough. At one time, "if you loved books, you could open a bookstore and be pretty successful," he says. "Now I think you have to be a little more on your game."

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