Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bah! Humbug! But please, buy books...

Sheesh. Has it really been four months since I last blogged?

You'd think I had a life or something!

Anyway, a end-of-year blog/post from Linda Richards, mystery writer, editor and cyberpal, finally prodded me out of my online stupor. And I probably needed it. Somehow life has grabbed hold of me and whisked me away from several projects I really should be focussing on. Like, my own Thrilling Detective site's fall issue now will be lucky to make it online by January.

Anyway, back to Linda. It's a typical year-end message, plugging January Magazine's best-of for 2009, and I've even got a few pieces in it somewhere. So far so good. Then she goes on to urge people to buy folks books for the holidays, a suggestion of which I heartily approve

But then she unleases this little sucker:
"Indie booksellers are passionate, interested and -- most of the time -- big readers. Ask for help: you'll be pleased and amazed at the warm response you get."

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for supporting your local bookstore. And I LOVE indie bookstores.

But I love ALL bookstores. It's just too easy to propagate this myth that only indie booksellers care about books. Most people who choose to work in bookstores care about books. They're certainly not in it for the money. I have the pay stubs to prove that.

I work in a bookstore, part of one of those allegedly big evil chain stores everyone is apparently supposed to despise, but I care just as passionately about books as anyone working in one of those sainted little shops everyone romanticizes about. Sorry, but life is not a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie.

I'm a real-life bookseller. If you cut me, do I not bleed? And if one dares to enter our store I recommend, I hand sell, I bend over backwards to find the right book for the right person. I'm actually sorta good at it. I'm nice to people. I don't even bite them anymore.

And, as I said, I'm certainly not in it for the money -- in fact, I have a sneaking suspicion Otto Penzler, another big basher of big stores (check out his scenery-chewing off-topic rant/intro to his great new book The Line-Up), might pay me better than my corporate overlords do if I worked for him.

But I despise the on-going mindset that implies that anyone who works for Barnes & Noble or Chapters or W.H. Smith or whatever is somehow morally or intellectually inferior. It's that sort of on-going and pervasive contempt in certain quarters that no doubt contributes to the rudeness and nastiness regularly bestowed upon my fellow workers and me by select members of the general public. Especially at this "time of good cheer."

I've worked indies, and I've worked for big chains. And believe me, indie workers get treated far better. No customer in a small ma-and-pa store -- be it books or coffee or whatever -- would ever so easily toss around the abuse that workers for large chains are subjected to every day.

It's the same sort of troublesome mindset, a sort of faux-elistist, anti-corporate populism, that allows some "average" citizens to think they can easily insult some hapless Macdonalds or Wal-Mart workers to their face and say the sort of nasty, foul things that they would never think of saying to anyone else. Sorry, folks, but just because someone works for a big company does not mean they're automatically worthy of your contempt and abuse. Or somehow less human.

But I digress.

What do you do when your local bookstore is part of a big chain? Do we support our neighbours and friends who are employed there by shopping locally or do we travel fifty miles to a small indie with bad service, poor selection and cat hair on everything? (Perhaps even Linda realizes this dilemma -- she suggests checking out things on Amazon -- not exactly a beloved small local indie itself -- BEFORE heading down to your local).

Oh, and here's another myth. Our local store did NOT arrive by forcing other stores out of business by nefarious means. There wasn't a single fire bombing or drive-by shooting. Those few supposedly wonderful little stores -- if they ever existed -- were long gone even before B&N was invited to set up shop in our sleepy little bedroom town. Yeah, they were invited by the city because there were NO decent bookstores in the area.

So, by all means, buy books this year. I'll even suggest you buy them from a real actual bookstore. From someone who cares about books. But wherever you buy them, be nice to the person trying to help you.

'tis the season, after all.


Blogger Guillaume said...

I have to confess, my favourite bookstores in Montreal are indies, many of them second-hands bookstores. You can find treasures in there and the staff is often quite knowledgeable, but sometimes to the point of arrogance (that's what happens when you read all of Marcel Proust's work). That said, I would never dismiss big chains. In England where I live, I couldn't survive without Waterstone's. I usually don't care too much about W.H. Smith as it often sells more stationary than books. It always depends of the particular store. I wouldn't live without Olivieri and the Bouquinerie du Plateau in Montreal and in Chicoutimi where I grew up, I think Les Bouquinistes gave literary culture to the city, but there are things I only find in big chains, when you have the patience to look outside the list of bestsellers. I met many people with a Master Degree in literature who worked in Renaud-Bray and Archambault and some pretty clueless enployees working for indie bookstores. And often, they don't sell anything else or better than on the big chains and are basically newstands with more novels and less newspapers.

Oh, and it's nice to see you blogging again.

7:50 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

I worked in two bookstores. Loved both. I miss it :)

1:32 PM, December 22, 2009  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

Very heartfelt post, Kevin. And you're right when you say that the "evil empire" bookstores employ people who care about books. I buy a lot of books myself at such stores. There is no indie bookstore nearby, so it's B&N and Amazon for me. I've encountered consistently friendly people in B&N, and you gotta love their prices.

The problem, though, arises from those big bookstore employees who lack fundamental knowledge of the book world. I was in B&N a few weeks ago, looking to buy the 2010 World Almanac, which I knew had already come out. I looked in the reference section and couldn't find it. I asked a young female employee where I might locate it. She looked at me glassy-eyed, not really knowing what I was talking about. She called over a male colleague, about the same age (21 or so), who had never heard of the World Almanac either.

Now, you'll have to admit, Kevin, this is not some obscure reprint of a 1930s novel by a long-forgotten author. It's the World Almanac, one of the charter elements of bookdom. I would dare to say that if all B&N employees were like you, the chain would probably enjoy a better reputation.

9:20 PM, December 26, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Well, there's a few points that need to be made here, Mike. First of all, not every employee in a huge chain bookstore is trained to work the help desk, even though often that's where the timeclock is kept. So a café worker or receiving clerk or seasonal temp who works the cash may be momentarily at the help desk, and completely out of their league.

Of course, B&N could only hire fully qualified book freaks like me and pay us higher wages and pass the cost on to customers. I'd be all for that.

Then again, if some B&N or Borders' employee is a dimwit (and some no doubt are), the whole chain's rep is tarnished. But if Joe's sub-literate, barely employable \ sister-in-law who works at Joe's Indie Books in Nosepick, Iowa is a moron, not every indie bookstore employee is automatically assumed to be an idiot (although some undoubtedly are), and therefore deserving of the abuse routinely dumped on chain employees.

11:38 PM, December 27, 2009  

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