Gayle's November Letter: Do Books Have Wings?

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dear bookstore friends walrus and the carpenter
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings."

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872) By Lewis Carroll



Gayle Shanks
Gayle Shanks
"The time has come," the bookseller said,
"To talk of many things:
Of books—and authors—and markets—
Of Amazon—and economics—
And how the book world is changing—
And whether books have wings."

Dear Bookstore Friends,

Where to begin is the question. I was in Rhode Island in mid-October and spoke on a panel called The Bookstore of the Future (read about it here in Publisher's Weekly). I donned a silly futuristic helmet, tried to envision our store and stores like ours successfully competing with the likes of Amazon, and came away, at the end of the discussion, if not depressed, then certainly less optimistic than I'd been before we took the stage. My fellow independent booksellers are working harder, earning less, often becoming bartenders, baristas, purveyors of wonderful toys and unique gifts, and trying—always trying—to keep their stores afloat and filled with incredible books, when increasingly the default for many book buyers is often a click away. And, unfortunately, not a click to our carefully crafted websites replete with staff recommendations, but to online mega-retailers who sell books not as a precious repository of the written word, but as loss-leaders to entice people to shop for consumer electronics, motor oil, garden supplies, hamster food—you name it.

And before I go any further, please understand that I am so grateful to those of you who shop in our store, bring your children into our store, buy your books at our store, tell us how much you love us and support us in every way. This issue is bigger than me and you—my hope in writing this letter is that everyone who reads this will have a better understanding of what independent retailers like Changing Hands are facing in today's world and help us by educating your friends. We need your help.

This online race for the lowest prices has taught many people that books, too, should be dirt cheap, and that shopping for the lowest price is always admirable. It's not that I'm a clueless consumer and don't want to get the best value for my hard-earned dollars. I do. But I've also learned that price is relative. Often the experience of buying something is half the fun, and worth paying for, especially when I know my money is staying in my own community, or employing people who live in my neighborhood, or will ensure that my favorite restaurant or store will continue to be there the next time I want to visit. Perhaps more to the point, do we really save money when we rely on bogus online reviews from an author's family, publicist, and best friends? Not really. We truly save when we get recommendations from knowledgeable booksellers who tell the truth about the books that they've read, because those are the books you're far more likely to enjoy, and maybe even love. And, often, at Changing Hands, these books can be found at used or bargain prices.

walrus and the carpenterAs important as the book industry is, there's actually more at stake than the fate of bookstores. What's at stake is community. Your community. Our community. Because online mega-retailers who use books as loss leaders to sell many things could put many retailers out of business, not just booksellers. And if they succeed, the backbone of every local economy in the country will be severed.

A new study prepared for American Express OPEN by Civic Economics has found that home values in neighborhoods with thriving independent businesses outperformed citywide markets by 50 percent over the last 14 years. It also notes that those same neighborhoods benefited from strong hiring at small, independently owned businesses:

"This research validates what we know intuitively—that small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities," said Susan Sobbott, president of American Express OPEN. "There is concrete evidence that thriving independent neighborhoods lead to higher real estate values and more local jobs."

But back to books. What's it worth to our communities, to our common culture, to have independent bookstores? What would it mean if online retailers became our only choice, if publishers reduced the number of titles they publish each year, if authors have Amazon publish their books? Do we want books—their publication and sale alike—in the hands of a single corporation? What will happen to authors like Justin Torres or Alice LaPlante, Miranda July or Jumpha Lahiri, if booksellers aren't reading and recommending these extraordinary novelists to their communities? Will we all be "browsing" online? There are some wonderful book blogs on the web. Will they become the sole source of discovery? Or will the serendipitous discovery of a life-changing book, encountered while browsing books on a shelf, continue to play a role in our reading lives? What about a heartfelt recommendation from a bookseller who knows and cares about the book, about you, and about matching one to the other?

At this moment in our industry's history, indie stores like Changing Hands have in some ways become showrooms for books. We read, we recommend, we display staff picks, we advertise and promote, we interact one-on-one to match the right book with the right person, and we host hundreds of author events every year. Sadly, our sales don't always reflect our efforts. Luckily, we generate a lot of local publicity for books and author events—in local newspapers, blogs, and magazines, and on radio programs and morning television. But all too often the benefits of that hard work go to Amazon and the chain bookstores. This is not unique to Changing Hands. Millions of readers learn about books from enthusiastic indie bookstores across the country, then buy elsewhere, often resulting in our publisher partners lamenting the diminishing return they get from independent booksellers, when in fact the spike in online and chain store sales is frequently attributable to our collective nationwide efforts.

walrus and the carpenterSorry if this sounds like a rant, especially at this time of year, but this issue is serious both in terms of reading and of community. This isn't just about my fate, but our collective fates as readers and as members of this wonderful community.

So, do books have wings? Will Changing Hands be the place where you buy your holiday gifts this year? If you choose an e-reader this holiday, will you give our own Google eBooks a try? You can read them on any smartphone, tablet or e-reader except for the Kindle. The best part? In 90% of cases our ebooks sell for the exact same price as the big guys. Not a penny more. Comparison shop even for a moment and you'll see what I mean.

Whatever your decision, we ask that you take into consideration all aspects of shopping—because the price we all pay for shopping online is much bigger than we've been led to believe. No money flows back into our local economy—no tax revenue, no recirculating dollars which support other businesses, local roads and infrastructure, our schools and libraries, social services, parks and playgrounds.

Ultimately, we all make our own decisions about what we buy and where we buy it. But informed decisions are the best kind. When I shop, I think not only about the money I save in the short-term, but the things I may lose in the long-term if I choose chain stores too many times in a row. That's the gift independent businesses like Changing Hands want this holiday season. In return, we'll give you the best shopping experience imaginable, the most knowledgeable staff, and in our case, a selection of books and gifts so carefully chosen that browsing becomes pure pleasure, buying an act of affirmation.

If you have any ideas about how we can make what we do of more value to you, please let us know. I would so love to hear from you. Just hit reply to this email and your words will reach me.

And again, a huge THANK YOU to all of you who come into the store, attend our readings, browse and buy our books. From all of us at Changing Hands, in this month of gratitude and thanksgiving, we wish you a happy holiday and hope the sun shines on your festivities and that you share wonderful times with family and friends.

~Gayle~

Comments or questions for Gayle? Click here or use Facebook comments below.

Gayle Shanks co-founded Changing Hands Bookstore in 1974. She served as president of the American Booksellers Association in 2008, and continues to be involved with the bookselling community on local, regional and national levels.





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Around Town
AROUND TOWN is a listing of upcoming and ongoing events in and around the Valley. Unless otherwise noted, these events are not sponsored by Changing Hands.

Saturday, November 5

The Case of the Indian TraderNoon to 1:30pm - Author Event at the Heard Museum: The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post. Author Paul Berkowitz will discuss the book and the circumstances that inspired its publication. Booksigning follows. This is part of the Navajo Weavers Marketplace which runs from 10am to 4pm. Cost: $15 with reduced prices for seniors, students, children. Location: Central Courtyard at the Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central, Phoenix. More info: heard.org/weavers.

Browse all Around Town listings here ».

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