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Going by the Book
by Chris Morrow
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Going by the Book
by Chris Morrow
(Chris Morrow runs the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont. The Northshire has been honored by Publisher's Weekly as the nation's "bookseller of the year.")
“When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.” Christopher Morley in Parnassus on Wheels, 1917
The specialness of the book world lies in the fact that we deal in enrichment. Much akin to our brethren on farms, we provide sustenance – “heaven and earth.” While we sometimes trade in books other than “real books,” the passion of booksellers and readers tends to lie in books that provide something meaningful - ideas, entertainment, education, emotion, story… Unlike farmers, we are not responsible for birthing and nurturing our goods, we are more like festival organizers trying to choose the best mix to satisfy our customers. A good bookstore has something for all festival goers. Exotic chicken species, cotton candy, smash ‘em up derbies, merry-go-rounds, pig races, flavored popcorn, the 4H winner are all there to be discovered.
Each year over 175,000 titles are published, with a couple of million titles in print at any one time. Even the largest of bookstores can only hold a fraction of these. So the art in bookselling lies in being a good filter. The foundation, of course, is knowing your customers. There are two primary stages. First, there is the buying process. The buyer sifts through those tens of thousands of books deciding what to put on the shelves. Second, the bookseller, in conversation with the customer, puts the right book in the right hands at the right time. This is not as easy as it might sound.
Independent bookstores are under threat. Membership in the American Booksellers Association is about a third of what it was in the 1980s and is in steady decline. Most of the membership has gone out of business and the majority of the ones left are not profitable. Many of our bookstores are struggling; I am struggling. But it is my decidedly biased view that the bookstores of America are important factors in promoting conversation on the issues of today - not to mention the historical context of what we are experiencing now.
Independent media, like independent bookstores, are key to keeping diverse and relevant voices heard. But local newspapers and local independent radio are in decline, too. These are the last bastions of programming for real people, not focus groups from corporate headquarters. They keep us rooted and informed. And having independent sources for our information that aren't serving distant corporate overlords with concerns that are irrelevant to our communities is important and shouldn't be taken for granted. In his recent book, Design for Ecological Democracy, Randolph Hester says, "Strong democracy cannot blossom without the forum for thoughtful and deliberative cooperation." In this amazing book he is talking largely about the physical design of our suburbs and cities, saying that poor design has led to a "loss of shared experience, local knowledge and civic mindedness." But the same forces are at work diminishing local control over our media - as recent trends in media ownership and deliberations at the FCC have shown us. We would be wise to be proactive in designing our media landscape to maintain and enhance multiple sources of locally rooted media. To the degree media becomes commodified, we lose out.
In the 21st-century bookselling world, many books have become commodities. The same book can be bought in California or Vermont or Oregon. It can be bought at a price club, by mail order, online, at a big box chain, at a specialty store or at a local independent. Does it matter where a reader gets this book? Does the transaction have any larger implications?
It’s interesting to look at these questions in light of the "Local First" campaigns quickly spreading across the country. Dozens of towns, cities and states are sprouting alliances of locally owned, independent business with the aim of raising people’s awareness of the value of looking locally for goods and services. The primary argument tends to be that spending money locally keeps money in the community, thereby strengthening it. The "multiplier effect" works to keep money circulating in a community many times over if it is spent at a locally owned business. This makes sense, as these companies all have local staff, lawyers, accountants and suppliers. Their owners and managers are right here, not in a far-off corporate headquarters. A study in Austin, Texas, revealed that more than three times the amount of money stayed in a town when it was spent at the local bookstore as opposed to a chain. Studies in Illinois and Maine back up this finding.
But there are many other reasons to support local businesses. Stores in downtowns—as many locally owned, independent businesses are—tend to be cheaper for their towns; they use fewer public goods and therefore fewer tax dollars. For instance, a study in Barnstable, Mass., found that a big box retailer "generated" a net deficit to the town of $468 per 1,000 square feet, whereas a specialty retailer produced a net annual return of $326 per 1,000 square feet.
Locally owned businesses draw tourists, too. Tourists don’t want to shop at the same stores they have back home. In an increasingly homogenized world, communities that preserve their one-of-a-kind businesses and distinctive character have an economic advantage.
Also worthy of note is that small businesses give more to nonprofits than big businesses do. In fact, small businesses give more than twice as much per employee as large firms do. As most of the job growth in the country is from small business, this is important to communities.
There are numerous reasons that independent business alliances and "Local First" campaigns are resonating with Americans. Not least is that local ownership ensures that important business decisions are made locally by people who live in the community and who will feel the impacts of those decisions.
There is a compelling case that diverting dollars that would normally flow out of state back to local businesses makes economic, social and even environmental sense. As the economy limps along for working people, gas prices fluctuate and the insecurity of perpetual war festers, the intuitive aspect of this argument is gaining traction with people from all walks of life.
For me, these arguments hold substantial truth. However, I also worry about the loss of the intangible human connections that are created, nurtured and celebrated in an environment rooted in knowledge of a particular place. There are no studies to assess the quiet damage to society as we lose our gathering places, our community centers, our bookstores.
Or perhaps there are…
In Bill McKibben’s recent book, Deep Economy, he traces studies of human happiness over the decades and how our happiness has related to increased consumption. It turns out that while gross domestic product per person has tripled since 1950—while we have created the first society of mass affluence in the history of the world—our stated level of happiness has stagnated. According to Americans, more and cheaper and faster are not necessarily better. McKibben points to local economies, rooted in community, as essential elements of a healthy 21st-century society.
Because the impacts of spewing CO2 into the atmosphere are not included in the price of electricity, because the impacts of buying insurance from a gecko are not included in the price of insurance, because the impacts of shipping vegetables 1500 miles are not included in the price of produce, we can live our lives ignoring our connections to the larger world and each other. But it is all too obvious now that we are connected, that we are interrelated in ways ecological, economic and spiritual.
At first blush, or with certain filters on, it can appear that the localism argument is one of isolationism, but it is actually one of interconnection. Pretending we are isolated beings who should live our lives maximizing our individual utility by sourcing goods and services at the cheapest rate is silly (and suicidal). The age of individualism is running into the web of reality. The fragility of sourcing our energy, our goods and services, and our food from afar are apparent. The need for oil drives foreign policy, the tendency towards big and cheap empties our downtowns, the international flow of food poisons us. So localism just advocates paying closer attention to the web of reality, to the way the fundamentals actually work, to the fact that there are implications to how and where we spend our money. These implications are not abstract - they are about what you see when you walk down your street, they are about who you interact with during your day, they are about if you have to travel in your car for half an hour to get diapers or a chain saw.
David Korten, in his important book The Great Turning has this to say, "Imperial societies maintain their dominator structures by consolidating control over all three spheres of public life - economic, political, and cultural - thus limiting people, families, and communities to whatever options the institutions of Empire find it in their interest to offer. Having little control over their lives and struggling to make ends meet, people withdraw from active engagement in civic life, causing the creative problem-solving capacity intrinsic to a vital community life to atrophy from neglect. The basic framework for the birthing of [an alternative] is simple: make life-affirming values... the values of the prevailing culture; renew the democratic experiment to restore to people, families, and communities the power to give expression to those values." Having access to independent media and bookstores is vital to furthering conversations about what life-affirming values we cherish and how to promote these in the "spheres of public life" that will shape our future.
(For information about Chris's Local First organization, go to localfirstvermont.org)
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