In one of the independent bookstores I visited on my west coast tour, I listened in as two employees stocked the shelves. They put up several new titles, commenting on which ones looked good, and one of them said, “I need to read this. I haven’t actually finished a book in over a month.” The other one laughed and said, “You sound like a Barnes & Noble employee.”
Most of the readers I talk to don’t care where they buy their books, but industry insiders tend to love independent stores and hate chains, and that stereotype is the reason: indies are full of people who love books, and chains are full of people who only applied because they couldn’t get a job at Subway. In my experience this just doesn’t hold up–chains tend to have a higher percentage of clueless clockpunchers, yes, but indies have their fair share as well, and both kinds are usually full of employees who love their jobs and read like crazy.
When I went to BEA a few weeks ago, I took an extra day to run around Manhattan and sign books in every bookstore I could find. Most of these were Borders and Barnes & Noble, which ranged all the way from “what kind of store is this again?” to “totally awesome.” I recommend two in particular, both right in the heart of Midtown and both, actually, Barnes & Noble:
Barnes & Noble, 122 5th Avenue:
One of the great things about this bookstore is that it looks like an indie, with winding stacks and hardwood floors and none of the franchise vibe that makes so many bookstores indistinguishable. My book was almost sold out, but I signed the one copy they had left, gave the manager some buttons, and he promised to not only order more but to display them on a central table when they came in. I browsed for a minute, and on my way out saw two of the staff already wearing my buttons. Everyone there was smart, knowledgeable, and friendly.
Barnes & Noble, Union Square, 33 East 17th Street:
If you’ve been to Manhattan, you knew I was going to mention this one. This is one of the biggest bookstores I’ve ever seen, with four or five cavernous levels all stuffed full of books. The woman who ran the fiction/literature section had just bought my book as part of her huge weekly stack (it was a very big stack), and was delighted when I gave her an advance Mr. Monster to read. She was a perfect example of the ideal bookseller, always reading, always looking for new stuff, with a comprehensive knowledge of the genre and the industry that would make some publishers look like noobs.
The one area where I think the indies are demonstrably “better” than chains is in their level of local control; they don’t have a corporate entity telling them where and how to shelve their books, so they can do pretty much anything they want, and a perfect example of that is Partners & Crime, a mystery-themed indie that became almost instantly one of my favorite bookstores in the world. It was a very personal love, too, not just a “nice bookstore” but a “I want to be a part of this community so I can shop here all the time.” It’s small and cozy, but without that “labyrinth” claustrophobia that plagues a lot of indies. There was a nice open space at the back with big comfy chairs, and the books were laid out in some very cool groupings. There’s the main shelves, obviously, and the new shelves, and then two or three shelves with almost humorously frank labels: “Our Favorites,” “100 Best,” and “Weird.”
They had another little shelf right by the cash register reserved for popular, commonly requested books, to keep them close at hand when customers asked about them, and I was delighted to find that this is where they had shelved me. My book was popular enough in that part of the city, in fact, that they had special-ordered several UK copies, and asked me to sign those as well. I gave them a copy of Mr. Monster and a bunch of buttons, and we talked about maybe trying to do a signing there when Mr. Monster comes out in the fall. They were incredible nice, knew everything about the crime and mystery genres, and when I tried to stump them with an obscure title I hadn’t been able to find anywhere they not only knew it, they pulled it off the shelf for me.
Great service comes from booksellers, not bookstores, and you can find it in indies and chains alike. I think, in the end, that the reason people love indies is the sense of ownership and community that you can’t get in a corporate environment. A good indie feels like a neighbor, like a store you can know personally, and that knows you back. The store is laid out in a certain way because the booksellers want it that way, and not because it needs to match the other locations in Idaho and Wisconsin and Florida. The smiling face that greets you is not only a bookseller but often the owner, and in the best stores also a friend.
Your homework assignment today: what are your favorite bookstores, and why?