by Steve Haruch
For years, on Bainbridge Island, there was this great little record store called the Glass Onion. The dude who owned it was named Jeff, and he loved his job. Basically, by buying a record store, he bought himself into a low paying job for life. Or so he thought. He was smart, passionate, and informed in a dizzyingly wide array of musical genres, and always managed to be on the cutting edge, without necessarily looking like a guy who lived on the cutting edge. Is this sounding familiar yet?
The parallel of course is that like independent record stores, independent bookstores are so much more than the wares they sell: They are gathering places, temples of shared knowledge, and most importantly, places where real human connections happen, because of "Jeff." Considering the genuine excitement and sense of community I witnessed at this year's Record Store Day festivities in Nashville — I mean, Chuck D. was hanging out at Grimey's, for crying out awesome — I can't help thinking the book industry could learn a thing or two from the independent music industry (though I realize this analogy is imperfect).
Let me start by saying that yes, I realize the writing is on the wall: E-books just overtook paperbacks as the bestselling book format in the U.S., and there's no sense trying to reverse that trend. Similarly, there's no sense trying to stop people from downloading music for free over peer-to-peer networks — so why are there still great independent record stores like Grimey's, The Groove and Third Man Records? Because they cater to music obsessives instead of trying to fit in at the mall.
Are there more music obsessives than book obsessives? Maybe. But Open Books in Seattle only sells poetry, for crying out loud — no one reads poetry! And yet, Open Books thrives, because they have a "Jeff": someone who lives and breathes the stuff. And listen: a beautifully made book is a ravishing object. Just like a vinyl LP.
And just as a vinyl LP is a particularly pleasing way of presenting the same audio information that's available in downloadable bits, a beautifully made book is a particularly pleasing way of presenting the same words that are available for your KindleNookPad2. Point is, Record Store Day has capitalized on the fact that true music fans appreciate — and will pay for — physical product if it's delivered to them in a way that feels real, at a store that's a pillar of their community and staffed by people who care as deeply about music as they do. A day of celebrating music — store-wide sales, live performances, autograph sessions and a heap of Record Store Day-only releases — has turned into something my fellow audiophiles actually regard as a holiday, and that gets people lining up around the block starting early in the morning.
Which leads me to this question: Have you even heard of National Bookstore Day? No? Well, it exists, sort of. (They even had an event at Davis-Kidd a couple years ago, apparently.) Well, what if Bookstore Day took a few cues from Record Store Day? What if, on National Bookstore Day, publishers released special editions of their books to coincide with author readings and signings nationwide at independent bookstores? And publishers released small, beautifully designed, limited-edition chapbooks from well-known authors that avid fans would snap up to tide them over until the next book? And if, say, Penguin Classics released a limited edition, Bookstore Day-only deluxe edition of one of its titles?
People will buy beautifully made books — and artistic bookmaking is alive and well. Just look at this one! And how about broadsides? Like this gorgeous letterpress print of John Ashbery's poem "This Room," for example. I don't work in the book business, but something tells me that tilting the release schedule toward Bookstore Day wouldn't be that hard, and really, Record Store Day has created a kind of built-in buzz for bands whose releases might otherwise go unnoticed.
And like I said, Record Store Day has succeeded by targeting hardcore music fans. Part of what did in big chain bookstores like Borders is the same thing that did in many of the big chain record stores: They tried to be too many things to too many people. I don't go to a record store to buy a Katy Perry CD with "Firework" on it because I can hear that song in every other goddamn movie trailer. And I don't go to a bookstore to buy biscuit mix. Nashville probably won't crumble into the Cumberland if we lose what's left of our independent bookstores, but here's Evison again, on what we'd be left with:
Ask yourself: what have I lost, what has my community lost, in the name of convenience? You wanna’ live in a town with wide boulevards, no sidewalks, and box stores on both sides? Then don’t spend your money at indie bookstores, or indie hardware stores, or indie grocery stores. Don’t seek out conversations. Just keep clicking and saving, and serving yourself in the name of convenience.
Or rather, realize that having a place where people come together to discover and talk about and obsess over books is a good thing — a vital and irreplaceable thing, even. Could a once-a-year event modeled on Record Store Day, with lots of bustle and clamor and limited-edition product, have saved Davis-Kidd? Maybe not. But making National Bookstore Day a date that book lovers circle on their calendars certainly couldn't hurt.