Yesterday I sang happy praises for the IndieBound iPhone app, and in spite of some less than encouraging news re: a little company called Amazon, I still have very high hopes that IndieBound’s work to optimize the presence and viability of community booksellers online will continue to be successful.
I also mentioned I’d be sharing a less happy story from the book curating front. And, here it is…
Last week was the last week for one of the best independent bookstores in the country. Vertigo Books, closed its doors after 18 years of serving the Washington D.C. and College Park communities. I grew up in Prince George’s County, where Vertigo Books had made its home the past few years, and I’d recently become “Twitter Pals” with Vertigo’s co-owner, Bridget Warren.
So, when I saw news of Vertigo’s closing, I asked Bridget if she’d be up for a talk about Vertigo, and bookselling, and reading, and all that stuff. And, in spite of having one heck of a busy schedule (not only did Bridget run Vertigo with her husband Todd Stewart, she’s also director of programming for the Prince George’s County Public Library system AND the mother of a college freshman and a 10-year old), Bridget made the time to chat with me and share some of her thoughts about the changes in the book industry and what they mean to her, to communities, and to readers everywhere.
The conversation was every bit as enlightening as it was heart wrenching. Bridget is all you could want in a book curator. She’s smart, she’s nice, and she’s passionate–not only about books, but about people and how they connect through the written word. And, when I spoke with Bridget, we talked a lot about community and books, and the importance of the places where we physically visit with one another to commune over a shared love of storytelling.
But, my thoughts kept coming back to all the incredible knowledge that Bridget and Todd (and their two daughters, for that matter) have accumulated during the past 18 years at Vertigo Books. Now that Vertigo has closed, what happens to that wealth of knowledge? And what happens to the people-reading talent/skills that they’ve developed over all those years? Reading people and helping to suss out what it is they are REALLY looking for in a book–that is quite an ability.
For example, Bridget related a wonderful story of a young man coming into the store one summer day. He was out of school and wanted something to read, but didn’t know what to get. He asked her where the “bestsellers” were — and after just a few minutes of talking to him and asking him the right questions, she was able to find out what he was interested in and get him a book that was just right for him.
Bridget shared other stories that showcase the many little things we all rely on from our friendly neighborhood booksellers (but don’t notice until they’re gone). She spoke of the shelftalkers in the children’s book section — hand written by her daughters, and so good that grandmoms and moms knew they didn’t even have to look at the book, their kids would love it. And she spoke of one customer commenting on the store’s impeccable title selection (a testament to Todd Stewart’s expertise as a great buyer), saying, “I can walk in here and I know I will leave with a GOOD book. I may not always LOVE the books you recommend, but that’s okay – i don’t have to love it. I can be challenged by a book. I’ve never gotten a bad book from you guys.”
That’s a major function of what people like Bridget and Todd do. They know their customers. They know what they read. They know what they’d like to read. And they make it a point to know about the books that don’t always get picked up by the mainstream bestseller lists. From its inception, Vertigo Books championed the work of emerging and established authors of color and political progressives. (Those voices that disappeared from Amazon during #AmazonFail, those are the very voices Vertigo Books tried to showcase.) As Bridget puts it, “Monolithic entities are not a good idea. We need voices from the margin–poking at the complacent underbelly.”
So, what happens to that?
Mulling it all over, I sought out the high priestess of all things bookish, Ms. Kassia Krozser of Booksquare, and she offered some wonderful observations about just how important the booksellers in our lives really are, and how developments such as the IndieBound iPhone app are one way community booksellers might be able to gain a competitive edge:
Booksellers (I am not counting B&N, Borders) have the unique advantage of being physically placed within the community (if they don’t have the misfortune of being in a high rent district that makes it impossible to survive). That face-to-face conversation is so important, and I think the community it engenders is the bookstore strength. I mean, I go to Vroman’s just to feel like I’m part of Pasadena. That I never leave empty-handed is a sign of my fiscal weakness.
Looking at the Indiebound app, I can see how the big organization can work with the individual stores to make it easier for online shoppers to buy books, either in person or via electronic delivery (an area I think booksellers will be able to exploit quite well if they do it right, and if publishers make it easy for this to happen) or via mail. People are willing to wait a day or so. Next day delivery is nice, but convenience is better. And if all indie stores use their collective ju-ju (technical term) to force competitive pricing (the Amazon advantage), I think consumers, a least a good number of them, would be willing to shop local, either via iPhone, laptop, or in person.
The brainpower of booksellers, like librarians, is the competitive advantage here. Amazon can give me reviews, it can give me prices, it can give me free shipping (hello, electric water heater!), but it can’t talk to me about what I think I want and what I really want (nor can it help me remember Joan Didion’s name when I am having a serious Christmas shopping brain meltdown…nice people at Vroman’s can).
Unfortunately, the nice people at Vertigo Books no longer can. Not in person anyhow. And, while Bridget sees the IndieBound iPhone app as a nice cog in the wheel of truly effective curating/bookselling, her experience is that nothing can take the place of being a part of your customer’s day to day lives. She offers a bit of hope with the news that Todd is considering a blog dedicated to book reviews and recommendations. And there are whispers of a possible book co-op.
So, that’s something. And maybe, along with developments like the IndieBound iPhone app, bookseller blogs and other innovations might lead to a viable, sustainable model that allows the brain trust of community booksellers, with all their book and people know-how, to continue enriching our lives and our culture.
Because, as Bridget quite succinctly stated as our conversation reached its end, “We have to find a productive way to share and help filter the great number of crapola books for customers.” And I coudn’t have said it better myself.
[Note: Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher does a wonderful job of summing up what the closing of Vertigo means to the community: “When a big company goes away, a Circuit City or a big bank, for example, the local impact is relatively minimal–some workers lose their jobs, but the effect is regional or national in scope. But when a small local business dies, we lose a chunk of ourselves, a piece of the thing we call community, the reason we live wherever we might live.” Read the full article here.]