Bookselling Blues

I spent part of last weekend up in San Jose, visiting old friends. They took me out for great Chinese food and asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to do. I shrugged. Maybe a movie. Or how about a bookstore? 

            They laughed, reminding me that this was San Jose, meaning my choice of bookstores would be either Borders or Barnes & Noble. I wasn’t surprised. But living in Nipomo, I don’t get to bookstores much. I just wanted some kind of book and magazine fix.

            So we headed over to the nearest chain store. The sign taped to the front door seemed an omen. New hours were being posted. Once opened to midnight, the store would now be closing at 10 p.m.

            Once inside, I understood why. Here it was, a Friday night in a major city, and I felt like I was wandering around a ghost town. There were people sitting in the coffee bar, focused on their lap tops. A smattering of others wandered the aisles. But no one stood in line to actually make a purchase. This store seemed as quiet as a library.

            I certainly didn’t help the cause much. After thumbing through various books for a half hour, I left with only a newspaper. It turned out to be a serendipitous purchase — the Business section carried an Associated Press article confirming my suspicions.

            The news for bookstores, the AP reports, seems grim. The national chain Borders, which has a store in San Luis Obispo at Madonna Plaza, announced that it may put itself up for sale. At the same time, rival Barnes & Noble, also with a local store downtown, posted a 9 percent drop in fourth-quarter profits.

            Analysts quoted in the newspaper article suggest that increased gas and food prices are forcing book lovers to either cut back on purchases, or seek bargains at discounters like Target and Wal-Mart. “This is going to be a really tough year for booksellers,” predicts one expert.

            One of my friends wasn’t surprised when I showed him the article. “Barnes & Noble used to be my library,” he says. “Then I discovered the real library one day. It’s wonderful. Now instead of using a credit card, I use a library card to get my books.”

            Charlotte certainly understands. She easily devours one or two books a week, but they come mostly from the Nipomo library. We used to buy books regularly for ourselves and for friends when we needed a gift. Somewhere, somehow, we stopped.

            This isn’t exactly what authors like Catherine Ryan Hyde want to hear. I’ve known Catherine since her early days as a writer in Cambria, struggling with rejection and barely getting by. Then she rocketed into the national spotlight in 2001 with Pay It Forward and other novels quickly followed.

            Catherine is still turning out great books—in the last twelve months alone, she’s had two Young Adult novels published. But her last mainstream novel , Love in the Present Tense resulted in what her editor and agent termed “disappointing sales” and Catherine was dropped by the New York publisher.

            “I would like to know where the readers have gone,” Catherine says. “It is very difficult for authors right now, unless you’re at the very top of the bestsellers list.”

            Catherine is actively hunting new readers for her latest Young Adult novel, the perhaps ironically-titled  Chasing Windmills. She has mounted an email campaign with friends and fans, basically trying to “hand sell” her book on the Internet, urging people who love books to share her writing with friends.

            Meanwhile, my friend Sara works at Nan’s Pre-Owned Books in Grover Beach and she reports brisk business from bargain-minded bibliophiles. Sara expects even more customers with the news that Leon’s, the used bookstore that has been a fixture in downtown San Luis Obispo, has announced plans to close. 

            Nationally, Barnes & Noble is expected to make a bid to buy Borders. Expect deeper discounts from both stores as they struggle to entice you inside for more than just coffee and newspapers.

            My friends in San Jose aren’t very optimistic. “We’re reading less and viewing more,” the husband argues. “Books have gone from being a necessity to being a luxury.”

            The wife agrees. “Why are books one of the first things we give up? Those big chain store customers may have stopped buying books, but they still want those four-dollar coffees. It would be much healthier if it was the other way around.”     

SLO City News (March 2008)   

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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