Therese here. It’s the second Thursday of the month, which means it’s #IndieThursday—a day dedicated to independent bookstores here at Writer Unboxed. When we first started this series, I thought of one person first. I wanted to bring this author over for a guest post, because–to me–she epitomizes what it means to support and develop a meaningful rapport with indie stores, and has a passion for them that is in no small way contagious. I’m thrilled she agreed and is with us today.
Many of you won’t be surprised to know I mean A.S. King , author of the highly acclaimed EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, a 2012 ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults and Andre Norton Award nominee, and the Edgar Award nominated, 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ. Amy is also the author of the ALA Best Books for Young Adults DUST OF 100 DOGS and the upcoming ASK THE PASSENGERS (2012).
Prepare to be inspired. Take it away, Amy!
I’ve tried to start this post about a million times. It’s not so much that I’m failing at describing why authors and readers should value their local independent bookstores. It’s more like I can’t understand why anyone would have trouble seeing the importance of their own community businesses without me writing about it.
Look. I’ve heard plenty of talk about how paper books are going to disappear, and how bookstores are going to vanish along with them. Publishing is soon going to die! Jump ship now! I do a lot of work with libraries who will, for the foreseeable future, have use for paper books, and I hang out in a lot of independent bookstores and meet plenty of people who plan on reading paper books until the end of time. I can’t see traditional publishing dying any time soon, and I can’t see why anyone would want to forecast such a negative (and unlikely) thing.
But I should tell you now that I have nothing against e-books. I dig e-books. I have plenty of author friends who publish in e-book only format. Please don’t take what I’m going to say in this post as some crusade against doing whatever the hell you want. I am all for doing whatever the hell you want.
I’ve just come back from one of my favorite conferences, the American Library Association’s annual conference, this year in Anaheim. It’s always a real buzz for me to attend because librarians are a generous, loving and helpful group of people and they are very [very very very] important to authors. Obviously. Right? When I’m at ALA, I get to wear two hats. First, I’m an author who is there to meet fans, sign books, and connect with librarians. But second, I’m a library officer and I’m there to find the right shelving for our periodicals or talk to librarians from around the country about their e-book circulation solutions so I can share this information with my director and my board when I get home. Learning about how libraries run and about how they’re funded and what librarians really do has been one of the most eye-opening experiences for me as an author.
Same goes for learning about independent bookstores. I’ve learned a lot over the years about this business and when the subject comes up of “shopping local,” I hear a lot of talk…but a lot of times, people don’t really know what they’re talking about. Every business is different. You can’t compare bookselling with anything else because it’s intrinsically tied to the publishing world and all the nuances that come along with it. You can’t just run this through an Economics 101 calculator and come out with glib assumptions.
I recently heard a person say something like this: “What do I care? I can get all the books I want from [insert online retailer here] This is capitalism, man! The American way! If those stores can’t compete, then they should find a way to stay in business without my having to shop there.”
Um. Look. Do what you want. I’m not here to convince you. I’m not here to argue with you. Smoke, drink and drive with your eyes closed. Go for it. Sign a petition for the reintroduction of leaded gasoline. I’m not here to judge you. I’m not here to tell you where to shop. I’m just here to tell you how my own experience with independent bookstores changed my life and created my career.
When I was just starting out in publishing, I had no idea about independent booksellers, same as I had no idea about librarians. And now? Now I know that the reason my children eat food and the reason I have a roof over my head is because of these two groups of people. I am grateful and I am passionate. So be warned.
Last week was my local independent bookstore’s 7th birthday. This is a big deal. First off, you must love books a hell of a lot to open a bookstore in a [really] small Pennsylvania town seven years ago. No, really. A picture of this store should be under the term ‘labor of love’ in the Idiom Dictionary. The owners could have stayed in lucrative careers in their old town, but they didn’t. They chose to open an independent bookstore. Some might call them nuts. I call them ninjas.
Independent booksellers are badass ninjas. Let’s just get that straight right here. They are badass hardcore book-loving ninjas. As an author and a reader, I can’t help but love them because no one else in this business can do what they do for me.
Independent booksellers sponsor events like book launches, author readings, signings and festivals to bring authors in contact with communities. They are human beings who can match my taste with new books and answer my questions. They are people who end up friends because it’s more than a job to them.
Independent bookstores have a hand-picked selection of books NOT generated by a small handful of corporate buyers in New York City. Therefore, their selection is eclectic, varied and will have an open mind. What I mean by this open mind: It will not be dictated by co-op dollars, it will not be dictated by bizarre cover art fetishes and it will not be dictated by money alone.
Yes, independent bookstores will carry best sellers. Of course they will! But they’ll carry my books, too, and if they love them, they will hand sell them with their hearts. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened. All because a human being (bookseller) read my book (which wasn’t hotly pushed by a publisher) and loved it (the way I naturally love butter pecan ice cream) and wanted to help me (an author who links fairly* on my website and who might own a lot of Indiebound t-shirts) launch it into the world.
(*Linking fairly means authors who include ‘buy’ links to all retailers including independents or Indiebound on their websites. Authors: do this.)
When my first book, The Dust of 100 Dogs, came out in advance copy form, I asked my publicist for ten ARCs so I could give them to my local independent bookstores. I asked my author friends, “But HOW do I give them these books without seeming like a creepy weirdo who’s trying to get them to like me?” I got a reply from more than one friend that said: Amy, send one to me and I’ll give it to my indie bookseller. She’s a good friend.
In fact, that’s how all of the authors who taught me about indie bookstores talked about their indie booksellers. Friends, comrades, cohorts, colleagues.
As a new author (and a natural hermit) I was still nervous, but my publicist agreed to give me the ARCs and I took a magical Indie mystery tour and visited all the independent bookstores inside a two hour radius (yes, I live that far from everywhere) and gave the booksellers a book and shook their hands and said hi.
The first store I went to was Clinton Book Shop in Clinton, NJ. When I arrived, Rob took a break and walked around town with me. We had a conversation about our families and our lives. We had a lot of things in common. We had both gone to the same bar back in the 80s. We’ve both been to our share of Grateful Dead shows. When he finished reading the ARC of The Dust of 100 Dogs, he called and told me that he’d really like to have me into the store to do an event. I was elated, because in the meantime, I’d reached out to my local chains and one of them treated me like I had leprosy with a side of lice. Author? Why would they want to work with an author? Not only would they not even take a bookmark from me in order to look me up further, they wouldn’t even make eye contact.
And so, I continued my magical Indie mystery tour. I met my local-est independent, Aaron’s Books in Lititz, PAand they were wonderful and nice and had a kid the same age as one of my kids. They told me that they wanted to do a reading in the store and that they were beginning to plan an annual festival and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. (Leprosy be gone!)
Changing Hands bookstore is far far away from my house. (2,406 miles.) But I knew I’d be in town to see a friend so I asked them if there was a way I could sign there. And even with my tiny publisher and my name which was synonymous with “Who?” they actually scheduled an event with me after reading one of those 10 ARCs. These were strangers connected to me only by my friend whom they trusted, because she said, “You will love this book.”
I could go on and on about the support I’ve received from many independent booksellers all over the country, but for the sake of the story, I want to concentrate on these three shops.
Back to Clinton Books, where Rob and I were building a friendship through Facebook and Twitter and he was very supportive of any questions I wanted to ask him about the process of being an independent bookseller. Rob nominated The Dust of 100 Dogs for the Indie Next List. I had no idea he’d nominated it. When we found out that it made the list, he was as excited as I was. Maybe more excited than I was because I wasn’t 100% sure what the Indie Next List was.
For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s the national list of independent bookseller picks for a season. The Dust of 100 Dogs was a winter 2009 pick. So every ABA (American Booksellers Association) independent bookshop inAmerica would stick this lovely fold-out list—with my book cover and Rob’s beautiful recommendation—into the bags of customers.
It isn’t co-op. No one has to pay for it on the corporate level. It’s people who love books trying to get other people to read books because…they love books. I know this is hard for some people to appreciate in this weird world where we’re used to an algorithm helping us pick our next read, but to me, a Laura Ingalls/Elizabeth Walton kind of girl, this old-fashioned generosity and authenticity really made me want to be a part of this community.
When we planned an event for Clinton Book Shop, Rob worked with me to make it something that would be well-attended. He called me to brainstorm. He wanted to see this book do well. We got quite a lot of people into the store for a no-name author in a small town inNew Jersey. Maybe 30. We sold books. I spoke about how to be an author, about what it was like to be an author and I answered a lot of questions about my 15-year-long journey to publishing a book.
My reading at Aaron’s Books was similar. We worked closely together to arrange the event. It was well-attended. After my visit, they hand sold The Dust of 100 Dogs so much it was their bestselling title for 2009.
My reading at Changing Hands was incredible. We had a lot of people there—many of whom would help my career in other ways like school visits or interviews in professional journals. I’ve found that connected people—people who are influential in the literary world in their areas—usually frequent independent bookstores.
So authors, there is a lot waiting for you at your local on the professional level.
But that’s secondary to a Waltons girl like me. Changing Hands is my home away from home. Something about how they got behind me and were so supportive of a complete nobody really meant something to me. I’m a sap. I’m old fashioned. But it’s impossible to get a hug from my computer, so I prefer humans. I just do.
I especially prefer badass ninjas—hiding in those shadows, ready to pounce on me and sell me a good book, and then hug me.
When my second book came out, another Indie Next Pick, I launched it at Aaron’s Books. The Please Ignore Vera Dietz party was a success and we had a great time. I went back to Clinton Book Shop and did a half-day writing workshop. As always, I was greeted at the door with warm hugs and sent away with a local bakery’s brownie. I went back to Changing Hands to find a bigger crowd and such enthusiasm for my book, I was floored. And this was before it won that nice shinyALA medal for the front cover.
I won’t bore you with a play by play of every book that followed. Just know that every time, it gets better. With each book, my friendships with Indie booksellers grow. Last week, when I took a birthday card to Aaron’s Books for the store’s 7th birthday, my kid and their kid played together, as they have since they were five years old.
Even though I’ve written this article in a career-focused way, I hope I’ve managed to show you that if my career died tomorrow, my friendships with independent booksellers wouldn’t just go away. But my career isn’t going to die tomorrow, and it’s important for you to know that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for independent bookstores. Sounds dramatic, right? But I haven’t told you yet that chain stores didn’t take either of the books I mentioned in this article. Chain stores don’t take a lot of books these days. Yours could be one of them.
Every time I do an event for readers, I make a speech before I read. I talk about libraries and the ever-falling library funding. I talk about how state funds are dwindling and lawmakers are cutting community services first. I talk about how some large Internet retailers do not pay sales tax, leaving states hundreds of millions of dollars short. I ask the audience to put these facts together.
And then I tell them that my lovely children and my hard working family would not be eating if it wasn’t for independent bookstores. I urge them to consider changing their buying habits—not because they’ve been ‘wrong’ to buy at other places. Not to guilt them. I don’t want to guilt anyone. Do whatever the hell you want, right? But I do tell them that if they shop at places that do not pay state sales tax, then they might not want to complain when their libraries close, their police forces dry up (mine did) and when their state funding disappears for whatever service they most enjoy.Where you shop does matter. Your community is yours. The size of shadow it casts is up to you.
When I understood the facts about independent booksellers and I met more of them at places like the NAIBA annual conference, I realized authors and independent booksellers come from the same badass ninja planet. We both live hand to mouth. We both rely on unknown, uncontrollable factors to survive. Usually, we are paying for our own [cruddy] health insurance and are not salaried workers. In a lot of cases, we both have other jobs to keep us afloat. And in all cases, we love what we do. Why else would we be living like this in order to do it?
It is a simple thing to support those who support you. That is why I support independent bookstores.
I told you that I won’t tell you where to shop, but I will ask you to look at your community and I will hope that you care about it. I will tell you that I live outside Reading, Pennsylvania, which is now my country’s poorest city. I will tell you that when I was a kid, we’d go into town to shop on Penn Street. I will tell you that Penn Street closed down, shop-by-shop, until there was no town anymore. I will tell you that most suburbanites are now afraid to even go into that town.
People can bitch and moan about how communities fall apart.
People can freak out over the crime rate that replaced our once-booming town.
People can wave their arms about “How can there be no police? That makes no sense!” (I did.)
People can point political fingers all they want.
But: we ARE the people.
And we are the people who chose to stop shopping in town.
When it comes to Reading, PA in the 1970s and 80s, the convenience was: malls. More suburban places to shop. The introduction of K-Mart and other box stores. Pomeroy’s in town still had cheap quality whites, but heck, since I’m going to K-Mart for some notebooks, why not grab some cheaply made sheets while I’m there? I don’t care that they’re not made in theUSA. I’m broke. It’s the 1980s. The economy has gone to shit and I don’t feel like driving all the way into town today anyway.
This is how things work. Yes. I’m aware. Malls put town out of business and now the Internet is putting malls out of business. I get it. This isn’t anything new. And people bitching about it isn’t new either. I am an avid community volunteer, so I am very aware of the bitch/help ratio.
The bitch/help ratio is about 98:2 in most places. And that’s probably optimistic. People will always find time to complain about what’s wrong in their communities, but rarely will they find the time to help. I understand it. People are too busy. People are too busy to help run their local community services, but they’re just busy enough to be able to use them. Life is short. Do what you want. Right? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.
But please remember: You are the people.
I was serious when I told you I don’t care where you shop. I don’t. I only know where I want to shop and what causes I give my time to. And I was serious when I said that you can’t make glib comments about bookselling unless you understand the business of books. I recently read someone’s answer to “Why don’t you support your community by shopping local?” and it cracked me up. The person said, “Everybody blames [online retailer] for this, but I owned a successful hardware store and once Lowe’s put us out of business, we adapted and now we sell [things other than hardware.]” Look. That’s like telling a badass ninja to become a used car salesman.
Badass ninjas survive. I think independent booksellers will survive and if you don’t want to help them, then that’s fine. I will. And a lot of other badass people will, too. But in case you’re an author and you never realized just how important they are…or in case you have one in your town and you never really realized that they were helping your community by just being there and having the gonads to operate, then I hope this post helped you see that.
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” –Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Bonus Material: Video about Please Ignore Vera Dietz, sales reps and independent bookstores.
Photos courtesy Flickr’s R’eyes  and A.S. King