New life for the independent bookstore

401_richmond_westDavid Michaelides is the owner of Swipe Books in Toronto.  I was chatting with him the other day and he offered what I thought was a dazzlingly good idea for the independent book store.

As we all know, the independent book store is struggling.  The rise of more and better TV, independent film and new media, and a rich, ever more interesting internet, these put books at risk.  The advent of and puts the bookstore at risk.  The advent of Amazon’s Kindle and other digital delivery vehicles put the very idea of the book at risk. Even if books and bookstores survive, advantage goes to the large chains that can buy in bulk.  It’s tough running in the independent book store.

But it may be that bookstores create value that we don’t appreciate. David points out that book stores have a magical effect on the social world around them.  They work as magnets for pedestrian traffic.  They manufacture an invitation to enter.  They endow the visitor with a permission to browse.  They give the visitor a reason and a right to be out and about.

This is important because two things are true about the North American city. 

1) The prohibition against being at large but unoccupied in public, while diminished, continues to haunt us.  There are lots of things that helped create this prohibition.  One of my favorite causes: that Northern European hostility for idleness.  Anyone in public not gainfully employed, without purpose or pretext, was clearly "loitering" and this must indicate an intellectual or moral deficit from which only bad things could come.  We are a little less preoccupied by this prohibition.  And thanks go to several things, including urban renovation, the new urbanism, the rise of distributed commerce, the creative professionals passion for city life, the fall of crime.  Starbucks with its creation of a "third space" contributed mightily.  Now it was ok actually to exist in public without a warrant, to sip coffee without an excuse.  (Of course, I still look at my watch occasionally to make it clear that I am waiting for someone.) 

2) buildings and neighborhoods that do not have pedestrian traffic become pallid, even hostile places.  Their decline, the very death, is not impossible.  As a result, some economic interests of the city depend upon the kindness of strangers.  Without pedestrians walking to and fro, the emotional temperature begins to drop, the welcome of a place begins to fade. 

We have robust virtual evidence of this effect.  This is precisely why Second Life, so extraordinarily promising for some purposes, proved finally a space people did not wish to occupy.  There was no one about.  Neighborhoods were ghost towns.  Second Life was itself a kind of vapor ville.  If this is not evidence enough, consider downtown Detroit on the weekend.  We like the presence of other people, even if we have no interest in them as people.  We are pleased to treat them, perhaps, as walk-ons in our own personal dramas.  They give a certain, pleasing effervescence to the world around us. 

Clearly, these two problems belong in tandem because the solution to one becomes the solution to the other.  As and when we lift the prohibition, people occupy buildings and neighborhoods in great number for longer times and hey presto both buildings and the neighborhoods come alive.  And when this social and emotional change takes place, an economic event is set in train.  Property values begin to rise.  Commerce flourishes.  Cities become safer and more habitable. 

Very good.  Back to independent bookstores.  There is no point in special pleading.  These bookstores are deeply interesting place but we cannot made a place for them on these grounds alone.  They must pay their way.  They must extract their own value from the world to bless this world with their presence.  But it’s now clear that value narrowly defined is not going to sustain them.  If they are to survive we must show that they create value of another kind. 

And this is where David’s argument comes in.  Bookstores are very good at breaking the prohibition against public loitering.  They attract people to neighborhoods, into buildings.  They endow the visitor with a permission to browse.  They give the pedestrian the right to be out and about.  And they do this just as well as the "third space" coffee shop, perhaps better.  What is called for then is an expanded appreciated for the value that bookstores create and we need property owners and managers to begin to factor this value into their calculation of the rent they demand of their tenants.  (Margie Zeidler might be an inspiration here.)  Something tells me Richard Florida could do a more elegant job of rendering this argument, but until he weighs in, this will have to do.  Bookstores, independent bookstores, especially, create a value over and above the supply of printed materials and we must understand and act of this value, before it’s too late.  As David  Michaelides points out, many more of North America’s bookstores will go out of business this year. 


The Swipe bookstore here

Peter.  2008.  Memory Lane Lined With Bookstores.  Collecting Children’s Books.  March 5 2008. here

Teich, Jessica.  2008.  Eulogy for an Independent Bookstore.  The Nation.  March 10, 2008. here

For more on Margie Zeidler here

American Booksellers Association here

8 thoughts on “New life for the independent bookstore

  1. Eric Nehrlich

    Great observation, Grant. I love independent bookstores that cater to loitering, with big comfy chairs, and no norm police scolding people for reading books without paying. HousingWorks Used Book Store is one of my favorite places in New York for that reason.

    Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park, CA provides a story of how a community didn’t miss its center until it was gone. Kepler’s went out of business, but there was such an uproar from the community and a rush of donations that it reopened a month later as the community realized that it couldn’t live without its bookstore at the center of town. Kepler’s now offer memberships so that people can recognize the value it brings above and beyond selling books.

  2. jkh

    great story of kepler’s, eric.

    the great urban idleness reservation – what a precise observation, grant.

    as in general independent bookstores seem to suffer i can see theme focused independent bookstores flourishing. – most notably in the field of art, design and architecture. and they are a true oasis of idleness – much like some fashion boutiques or furniture and design shops that you find in cities like rome, milan, madrid, paris, newyork, london, berlin etc. etc….
    these (mostly but not exclusively smallish) shops offer you something that is popularly being summed up under the label of ‘curated consumption’. – you step into this world, have a complimentary coffee or a gin tonic and talk with the owner about the world and the new things that are relevant and up and coming through her/his eye…

    here is a new book idea for you grant. – get yourself a good publishing house – one that is really leading in coffee table books – team up with a good photographer (they will provide you with one) – and explore these reserves of urban idleness in essays and interviews.

    do it.

  3. Matt

    Don’t leave it to bookstores. Record shops are the same. They are places that encourage pedestrians to come in and just listen to new music. Some of the better small ones even had bands. A little record shop in Buffalo (now out of business) had Sloan make an appearance and jam for about an hour. Five people watched, others loitered. But these are dying industries, but don’t have to be dying concepts. Again, my town has a place that just opened up called Village Beer Merchant. The name implies the goal: a community on the street. A place you can bring your Growler and they will fill it from their kegs. A place that encourages you to loiter, to look, to learn. Big box stores have taken the fun out of just shopping. We dare not go to a big box out of fear of getting lost, but smaller stores encourage you to get lost.

  4. Marcus

    This reminds me of the comic caf├ęs in Japan. In some places you can read comics, use internet etc but you pay also pay for the time you stay there. But their use has become a lot more varied than that.

    Quick googling gave this blog-entry explaining some of their history/present use

  5. srp

    When I was in Evanston ten years ago, the local Barnes & Noble played exactly this role. I don’t see why a bookstore has to be independent to be an idleness-legitimator.

  6. David Michaelides

    [post by Grant McCracken for David Michaelides]


    In Toronto there have been two instances of bookstores saved by the generosity of the communities they served. In both cases economic realities ultimately overtook these efforts. Increasingly, independent urban bookstores are run as hobbies by wealthy retirees, trust-fund kids or financially supported spouses. Low margins and the high overhead in any urban center location make this form of retail a dubious prospect, almost irrespective of sales volume. An urban bookseller must be willing to work for very little with, at best, no return on investment and more likely with mounting losses. Some individuals choose to do so. Once the initial crisis is averted few communities can be motivated to maintain this kind of commitment in the face of a more-or-less permanent need for subsidy. I hope your Kepler’s fares better the examples here.


    I have for 20 years run a general design, graphic design and advertising industry bookstore in Toronto. My good-natured competition was an industrial design bookstore, in business for 22 years and an architectural bookstore, in business for more than 25 years. Both these shops will have closed by the end of April. Counter-intuitively, specialty bookselling is more vulnerable to competition from large-scale players than is general bookselling. We all assumed that our problem was going to be B & N and the like (or perhaps Walmart). Of course the problem has turned out to be Amazon. Bibliophiles feel the pleasure of browsing offsets the attraction of a 30% discount and imagine that it must be so for the majority of customers. Sometimes it is. Amazon can’t compete with me in the depth my inventory. All those obscure European and Japanese titles that I make no money on are supposed to push the easy stuff out the door. Amazon kills me on the easy stuff. Sometimes I feel like a Sears catalogue showroom – everyone browsing with a notepad!


    Your point about Barnes & Noble is fair enough. They are a bookstore and all bookstores can, potentially, serve this cultural purpose. However Barnes and Noble rarely sets up shop in a marginal area of town. Shopping malls (or their gentrified main street equivalents) have strict rules of participation, spoken and unspoken. Shops like B & N invite certain types of people and exclude others both through the physical properties of the stores and through the selection of material they offer for sale. Which is fair. So do independents. Yet independent bookstores manifest all the idiosyncrasies of the individuals who “curate” them, both in terms of their rules of public conduct and in the ideas being disseminated. We negotiate with the diverse elements in our streetscapes and culturescapes in a way that a corporation cannot, rightly, be expected to do. They have a responsibility to their shareholders. We have a responsibility to a more diverse group of stakeholders.

  7. srp

    I agree with you in general that corporate bookstores have to be more cookie-cutter than independents. But that unit in Evanston pulled in everybody from the local homeless (who seemed unusually sane and literate) to the college folks. There was a huge group sitting around on chairs, the floor, etc., readng madly, especially at the front of the store where the periodicals were displayed. It was surprisingly social, and I think the odd pickup even occurred there.

  8. jkh

    thanks david.
    interesting insight. – so you are actually in the art and design niche.. intersting. – i always thought those specialised shops would do reasonably as they are popping up everywhere. – but then probably it is very much a labour of love.
    all the best with your store and project. – if i can be of any help – i would not know how at the moment… grant has got my details.
    all the best, jens

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