Sunday, October 18, 2009

There is no culture without a counter-culture.

On Friday, the big news in the book business was the bestseller pre-ordering price war that broke out between Wal-Mart and Amazon. It was like watching Godzilla versus Mothra, two clowns in rubber suits thrashing about, creating havoc in the marketplace. For the time being, the Beast from Bentonville can claim victory, having gone all the way down to $8.99 on a handful of upcoming so-called "super releases" -- Palin, King, Patterson, Koontz, Crichton, Grisham, etc., thereby beating Amazon by a single cent. Let the ghost of Sam Walton rejoice. These are books which hold "suggested retail prices"* in the $25 -$35 range, and which cost the retailers somewhere around half of that. It was easy to get a whiff of publishing executives all over Manhattan soiling their shorts as they watched their prized properties being valued at a third of their supposed worth. Eh, what can we do, bub? If you wanna do business with the devil sooner or later you're gonna have to accept the devil's terms.

Nonsense. Wal-Mart and Amazon aren't devils. They're big retailing corporations whose management lives by the same ethos as the parent companies of big publishers: growth at all costs, everything to be treated as a commodity (including books and people), give consumers whatever they want, and, finally, what's good for the bottom line is good, period. They're in the business of selling SKUs attached to physical objects with dimensions optimized for easy handling. They don't give a hoot what's inside a book. They care how much it weighs, how many fit in a carton, and how many units can be moved out of a distribution center in how little time. And if you own stock in 'em, you're glad they think that way, aren'tcha poot?

The whole episode was risible. After all, does anyone in their right mind believe that
Going Rogue is really worth $28.99 or that I, Alex Cross is worth $27.99?** These are not "suggested retail prices" -- they are fantasies perpetrated by publishing accountants who know that nobody is actually going to pay that much, but who need to justify the overhead their companies are carrying. Pretty slick, huh? An impartial observer could not be blamed for assuming that he was witnessing an industry in its death throes.

But he would've been wrong. Saturday brought with it news of a different sort. An independent bookstore on the corner of Fulton and South Portland in Brooklyn's Ft. Greene neighborhood rang up its first sale: a local restaurateur bought a copy of
The Beer Book for $25. The store's owners -- Jessica and Rebecca -- went ape with joy. There they were, seeing their hopes and dreams, their energy and money and passion, bear fruit and become something tangible, something real. They skated in their socks across that beautiful wood floor, giddy as schoolkids let out on holiday. Whee!

Okay, you may think that Jessica and Rebecca are two naifs stubbornly clinging to youthful idealism, a couple of quixotic dreamers with little sense of What It Really Takes To Run A Business. Nonsense. They are two of the savviest, smartest, most clear-eyed entrepreneurs you'll ever meet. It's just that they're in love with books, the culture of books, and the community that such a culture sustains. For them, selling books is a way of earning a living, not maximizing a profit. It's a way of building relationships and adding value to the community they inhabit, not a means of capturing market share. In other words, they're just like most independent booksellers I know: genuine originals who prove -- on a daily basis -- that running a good business is not incompatible with a passion for good books. Which isn't to say what they do is easy. Is anything really worth doing easy? No way, especially when you're playing in the same ring as Godzilla and Mothra.

The real news this weekend is that Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn opened, a 1,600-square-foot rebuke to the dominant American culture of mindless consumption, epitomized by retailers like Wal-Mart and Amazon who think it's a trick to sell books simply by lowering the price.

But Jessica and Rebecca didn't work so hard just to deliver a rebuke. They opened their store to serve their community and, in so doing, become an integral part of its cultural life. The cultural life of Emerson and Thoreau, Dickinson and Whitman, Muir and Carson, Snyder and Berry, Debs and Berrigan, of "small is beautiful," of slow food, of peaceful protest, the culture of Stegner and Terkel, Dorothy Day and Annie Dillard, of democratic vistas, of Brooklyn and Bozeman, of Pollan and Waters, Roth and Didion, Seeger and Wilson, of music and theater, of minorities, queers, nerds and comedians, of all those Americans unafraid to take responsibility for what they say and write and think.*** The literary culture that has, and always will, run counter to the mainstream. Without which the mainstream would cease to exist, except as an economic abstraction.

Let the retail sachems out in Bentonville and Seattle do what they do. Let the corporate publishers sweat. Who cares if they can't sell enough $8.99 blockbusters to sustain their businesses? Surely there's a lively enough counter-culture to support hundreds of independent bookstores across America. And, if the main branch of the book business withers and dies, perhaps it will allow the wonderful and varied new shoots hungering for life to have their day in the sun.

* When the words "suggested retail prices" appear, you're supposed to laugh.
** When the book title
Going Rogue appears, you're supposed to shake your head and make a clucking sound.
*** Feel free to supply your own examples -- there are hundreds to choose from. The ones named are just some of my favorite touchstones.


  1. I love a guy who is the voice of reason. My husband is one and so is my son. You have been added to my very short short list.

  2. Great piece. I think what ticks me off about Wal Mart and Amazon along with many of the publishers is that they just don't care about books. I love books. I've given my life to books. They aren't just a SKU to me. Why can't these guys fight over hammers and garbage pails and leave the books to those that love them.