What is the difference between an indie and a chain?

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?

11 Responses to “What is the difference between an indie and a chain?”

  1. Karen says:

    I love indie books (indiependentbooks.com) A bookstore is a bookstore to me. They all carry pretty much the same thing, the main difference is the customer service. But, like you said, that isn’t store specific, it’s seller specific.

    I like going to those stores that have books you can’t get anywhere else. And where the people selling them know each one and can recommend them according to your own tastes.

    Just like that show Cheers. When you ask a question you get a specific, personal answer. Another reason I prefer indie stores is you have more access to the people working there. You can find them on social media sites and speak with them one and one. Can’t see that happening with a box store.

  2. I used to be the manager of the book department at Hastings in Waco..I have to admit they were great about hiring people that actually knew the dept. they were woking in..not just someone that filled out an app and could spell. Every dept. there was run and stocked by people who loved what they were selling..The only problem is the management were assholes. The pressure of making the store top of the division made them neurotic and mean. They tended to do a lot of screaming and yelling and name calling to motivate staff..I have a certain gleam in my eye and attitude that made it known I wouldn’t take that crap and I did my job so well, no one tried that with me..so the Book dept. managed to get a long ok..I like the ? million books? is that the name of it.? In Waco..they have a great staff and the prices are pretty reasonable. Any book I buy I read and then donate to my local library. Which is why they have your book…

  3. I’m much more familiar with local libraries than bookstores, but I agree it is always nice to talk with a friendly bookstore worker.

  4. Steve D says:

    I’ve had this discussion with so many people (you included, Dan). There was a reason why the Waldens I worked at was #1 in the country: we pretended we were indie. I ordered what I wanted, displayed what I wanted, and pushed what I wanted. Of course, that store was the exception to the rule that follows most book chains.

  5. admin says:

    Steve, that’s why I keep hoping you’ll start your own bookstore.

  6. erisian23 says:

    Powells books! the biggest little store :)
    where you had a wonderful reading btw..

  7. Eliza says:

    I live in a city that I’ve heard referred to as being literary and bookish, and yet I haven’t been able to find a bookstore I truly love. I’ll shop at Half Price, or B&N when I need something specific, but…meh. My favorite bookstore was Chinook Books, in Colorado Springs. My memories of it are painted with a delicious rosy childhood glow, and I remember picking up, alternately, Klutz books, The Egypt Game (which became on of my favorites) and a big but on Tuttenkhamun.
    *Sigh* It shut down, and the space turned into yet another useless clothing boutique.

  8. Sam says:

    Wanted to make a post to tell you that I read Serial Killer and Mr. Monster and they were both fantastic and I’m very much looking forward to the last one. Now I feel a little awkward because I’m not commenting on the actual entry…

    To be honest I’m not a social enough creature to be that bothered by where I get my books, so long as I get them. So far as I’m aware there aren’t any indie book sellers in my town (it’s quite small, but then I haven’t actually checked around at all). I have been to cool book shops in Manchester but it doesn’t really make it worth a train journey to get something I could nip into Waterstones to get, or order it off of Amazon if they don’t have it there (they didn’t have your books, the fools!).

    I dunno, maybe it’d be nicer if the person behind the counter sold me the book with enthusiasm and a hearty recommendation having already read what I was buying, instead of looking at my book choice and assuming I’d be interested in preordering the new Stephanie Meyer book, but in the end I’m still going to buy and read the book; that’s why I took it to the counter.

    To me a shop is a shop, and I’ve never walked into a place and thought ‘this place is so cool that I must do all my book purchasing here forever’. Maybe I’m just not going to the right shops, and maybe as an author you spend far more time in book shops than I do as a consumer so it matters more. *shrug*

    On a slightly different tangent I’m kinda shocked to find out that MM isn’t even out in America yet. How is it you ended up published in the UK first? (I realise as I write that you probably already answered this at some point, but maybe someone could point me to that answer?)

  9. Steve D says:

    I’d love to start my own indie store, but that requires an absurd amount of effort and moolah.

  10. Hannah says:

    My friend has promised to take me to a bookstore around the corner from her house, because it has those ladders that you can move along the shelves.
    I think one of my favourite libraries is the one in ‘Becoming Jane’ – it doesn’t actually exist, but it’s full of shelves and staircases and places to hide.

  11. Christoph says:

    It´s hard, pointing to a bookstore I really like. German bookstores are not really big in the field of SF/F, especially if what you read is written in english. My favorite bookstore in Germany would therefore be a Thalia (yeah, guess you don´t even know it…) in Hamburg. It is big (for German bookstores, anyway), it has one floor dedicated to English literature with several shelves only for SF/F. I loved it there. Still, being in Bavaria with about 600 km to Hamburg, I just can´t go there to buy some books.
    As I tend to buy books that are not even available in Germany, my answer would be amazon.com…

Leave a Reply