Independent vs. Chain Bookstores
a conversation by Michael Shaub and Jessa Crispin

We don't hate independent bookstores. Truly we don't. It may seem by the following conversation that we do, but it's just pent up frustration at the glamorization of the small, independent bookstores and the accusations that by supporting Amazon and Borders we are killing the independent spirit.

After all, isn't it the books, not the bookstore?

It was all started by an article in the Entertainment section of the local newspaper. They had one column supporting independents and one column supporting chains. Neither of them told the whole story, we thought. The article is not archived online, however, so unfortunately we can't share it with you. The pro-chain column accused independents of lacking quality of service and selection, while the pro-independent, of course, accused chains of killing the independent spirit.

Is the independent spirit worth saving? Do chains hurt the local economy? Do independents help the local economy? Should we blindly buy only from independents even when we're belittled in their stores (see below), when they don't provide good service, when the employees are not paid to care about their jobs? The article didn't explore any of that, but we found we had a lot to say on the subject.

So on a Saturday afternoon, Michael Schaub and I sat down, with Kenan Hebert wandering in and out of the room, with a tape recorder and the article and discussed the endless independents v. chains debate.

- Jessa Crispin



J: I really do have to say that this cartoon makes no sense. I wish we could recreate this on the website for everyone to see. What the hell is going on?

M: It looks like a guy confronting a robot made entirely out of books.

J: What does that have to do with anything?

M: I don't know. It's got that New Yorker vibe of not making sense. Maybe there's a caption that's missing like, "Hello, Robot Book Man!"

J: Is the robot Barnes & Noble? And the guy is the consumer? Or the guy is BookWoman? It could be a butch.

M: I was going to let you say that. Thank God you did. The caption could be "Your Adrienne Rich section leaves something to be desired." I bet BookWoman has an entire shelf devoted to her.

J: I'm really happy that both of these mention BookWoman. You can really tell a lot about a person by their response to that bookstore. And I would like to tell you why. They hate men. I'm sure they were really big friends of Manifesta. And when they came to the "Feminists should sleep with women" section, they cheered. Held up their fists in victory.

M: And then on to Gaby n Mo's.

J: That's the difference, though. Gaby n Mo's didn't follow my male friends around and glare at them acting like they were shoplifting or black, perhaps. And BookWoman did.

M: I think the closest experience I've ever had to being black in a department store was being a man at BookWoman. It was just weird. They kept smirking at me, but in this real unfriendly way. Not a patronizing smirk, but a hostile smirk. I never spent much time there. I spent five minutes being intimidated and then out the door.

J: I was friendly with one of the clerks briefly, one time I was in there the mail man came in because he had a package she had to sign for. She actually huffed, made an audible huff sound, and said, "You know he didn't have to come in here. I could have come outside." I was just, "Okay, you lesbian separatist, you. I'm going to go find a male now and give him a hug."

M: That's the thing about BookWoman. They're just like the Michigan Women's Music Festival. They're so into gender separatism. If they could actually legally ban men from their store, I think they would. There's just no reason for it in Austin where most of the men are feminists anyway and feel guilty about being male.

J: And this Michael Barnes fella who says, "Yet I receive the iciest of receptions almost every time I request an author or subject not currently acceptable in the eyes of the clerks, an experience shared by several of my male friends." I am a fucking woman, and I had that problem. It was a book about gay studies. Lesbian and male. It happened to be written by a man. This was for the Sexuality Education Center I worked at, and they knew I was from there. I read the title and the author and I was told, "We wouldn't have that, because that's by a man." And I said, "Yes, I know, that's why I'm asking you to order it." And when I went into pick it up, she said, "Oh, you're the one who ordered the book by the man."

M: Oh my God. So they don't carry any male authors?

J: None.

M: I've even gotten an icy reception when I've gone in with a lesbian cadre. My big group of friends. I don't get any second hand lesbian cred. They see me and seem to think, "Oh, patriarchy."

What I don't understand is why BookWoman does this. Do they want to keep preaching to the choir? They're having financial troubles. But the people who could be helped the most by them, the "evil man" or the "evil heterosexual" could be converted, they won't even talk to them. They make them so unwelcome, they're not going to change anyone's minds.

J: Then there's the question as to whether the world needs feminist bookstores anymore. There was a time when women authors weren't given a chance, and then Oprah came along. Thank God for that. Maybe what we need now is not a feminist bookstore, but a decent women writers bookstore. You still can't find a lot of that. That's not what is up on the shelves. Cough Alice Seybold cough.

All bookstores, even bookstores in fucking Kansas have gay studies sections, and they have large gay studies sections. They have books by lesbians. It's not a niche anymore. You have Jeanette Winterson. I don't consider her to be a lesbian author because it's not the presiding theme to her novels, it's not what she's all about, and thank God for that. I read this article about why gay literature must die, because your coming out stories, we've heard them. I don't mean to seem patronizing, but...

M: When Texas A&M first had a gay studies course, I was very supportive of it. Every school has them. But now, I'm opposed to it. It's the horrible ghettoization, and there's really not enough gay literature to sustain it. Even if you accept that Shakespeare was gay.

J: Or good gay literature.

M: There's a few novels, The Charioteer. It's hard to justify an entire course on that.

J: I took a psychology of homosexuality class, and they called it that because this was the town where Fred Phelps lived. And he could fax you to death. So they called it a psychology course so maybe he would think we were studying what was wrong with gays. There was a literature section, and a film section. Wow, the lesbian book, oh my god. Horrible. So that's what we need. Good lesbian authors. Jeanette Winterson is the only one I can think of, but I can name half a dozen gay male authors off the top of my head. Paul Monette. Andrew Solomon. Blah blah blah.

M: Every town that has a Barnes and Noble or a Borders is that every town has access to a gay studies section. And I think that's one of the great things about chains. You'll have your gay or woman's bookstore, but Barnes and Noble has made it mainstream.

J: I don't understand the problem that people have with big bookstores. I know they put mom n pop's out of business, and I lived in Lawrence and saw my favorite bookstore close. I found great, great books from them, but I have found just as many authors from Borders. The small bookstores don't have the space, so they tend to go for what they think will sell. The big bookstores can put anything they want. I have never seen such an amazing world literature section as the Borders in the Arboretum. Russian authors I didn't even know were translated into English. They have all of the university presses, which you don't see at BookPeople. Their selection is hideous. They don't even have friggin Kathy Acker books.

M: You'd think she'd be bread and butter for independent bookstores.

J: There are two new Kathy Acker books right now, and they didn't have either when I went to buy them. They have it at goddamn Borders, but they don't have it at BookPeople.

M: Well, you go into BookPeople and they put so much stock on bestselling books. There are still, and I'm estimating conservatively, 13,000 copies of the new Dave Eggers left. And they think it's going to sell, but they don't take many risks, which is odd for the largest independent bookstore in Texas. The extent to which BookPeople is successful is that it patterned itself after Barnes and Noble and Borders. They really look exactly alike.

J: Except the Texas authors section. They have a huge Texas authors section, but that's not what I look for in a bookstore. They have an amazing chick lit selection. If that's what you're looking for. I'm not sure why they've decided to go really, really safe. That's not what independent bookstores are supposed to be about.

M: Especially when they use the slogan "Keep Austin Weird" to convince people to shop there. BookPeople is really expensive, and I understand the economics behind that, but I don't think you can convince people to break themselves just for the sake of indie cred.

J: They have better readings and better authors, but I hate those things.

M: And Salman Rushdie is going to Barnes and Noble. But more respected authors do go to BookPeople, and Borders gets mystery writers from San Angelo.

J: Austin is not a literary town, no matter what they say. We have a high rate of book sales, compared to other cities in Texas, but look at the other cities in Texas. They should be glad we ever get out from in front of the television.

M: That's the thing with the Texas Book Festival. Texas does have a literary heritage, but it doesn't translate into people buying books. And they buy fucking Sarah Bird and Sandra Cisneros.

J: Who is the token Hispanic writer. Nothing against Cisneros, it's more against the white people who came to see her at the festival.

M: Yeah, and I'm sure that she fills their quota for a Hispanic writer.

I'm just not convinced that the chains are bad for the community. The Borders in San Antonio hosts local poetry readings and writing groups, and okay, they're lame.

J: But there should be a place for that.

M: People in the community want to go read a poem they wrote, and it's cool that the chains can do that. And they don't have to. They can be as impersonal as any other big store, like Best Buy.

J: I hate Barnes and Noble. But Borders, besides their shady dealings, and refusal to let their employees unionize, they do put out an effort. More than Barnes & Noble, and probably more than a lot of indie bookstores I've been to, have good displays, keep it a nice place you don't want to leave, they don't have dumb employees. I know that's the stereotype, but if we're going to go into that.

Fucking BookPeople employees.

M: I want to like them, I really do, because they're very pretty.

J: They're very alternateen.

M: I know they're probably nice, I know they're probably smart, but they don't help you. They just don't care, God bless them.

J: There are things bookstore employees should know. And I know BookPeople pays their employees absolute shit, but... it's not the employees fault. For an independent bookstore to say they're better than the chains, they should a) pay their employees better; b) I don't know if they offer health care, but I'll go out on a limb and guess no; c) and hire people who know something about literature.

M: And Borders does. My brother worked at Borders, and they gave you a test. And they name books and you are asked to name the author. It's not all easy. It's not all John Grisham and Danielle Steele. They ask you about Kathy Acker. They really want to make sure people know their stuff. And the people who work there, there are a lot of graduate students, a lot of college students who are really smart. They've helped me find stuff before.

J: When I first moved to Austin I got applications for the bookstores, and Borders offered a higher pay baseline than any of the independents.

M: The other thing I wonder is why we should support independent businesses when they don't support their employees. We know BookPeople employees get paid crap, so we don't know where the money is going. I know nothing about the BookPeople owner. There's no accountability; there's no transparency. If there's an owner of some fictional independent bookstore giving money to the Aryan Nations, we wouldn't know about it. But if the owner of Borders did it... It would be in every newspaper in the nation.

J: Like Domino's. They gave to Operation Rescue.

M: Exactly, and their business suffered. That's the accountability of big business. I'm not sure chain stores are bad for a community. I'm not a fan.

J: If we were having this conversation in Chicago or Boulder or Portland where their independent bookstores were famed, this would probably be a completely different conversation. But because of the past experiences we've had with independent bookstores in Austin...

M: If we lived in the same city as Powell's Books, I would live in that store. I know a lot of people say that, but I would actually try to live there.

J: Then there's Half Price Books. You know why you can never, ever get a job at Half Price Books? They pay over $10 an hour. They offer insurance. Their employees know their shit. And that's why. They have really good business practices. They're constantly expanding.

M: Every time I go there, I take one book up to the clerk and I leave with five. He's like, "You know what you gotta get?" Seven dollars for Nikolai Gogol? Fuck yeah. It's a great store, it's a great business. They're into recycling, they give teachers discounts, which I don't know if any other stores do.

J: I think Borders does.

M: How much more community friendly can you possibly get?

J: And every employee that I've ever known they've been there 10 years.

M: It's like a career.

J: I wish I could work there. I wish one of their employees would die and leave an opening.

M: I considered applying when they had an opening at the South Lamar location, but by the time I got it together I figured they already had 750 applications. People a lot more qualified than me. Half Price Books is a great example of a chain store, and it is a chain store. It's all over Texas. And Louisiana, Wisconsin... They even have them in College Station.

J: Really? That can't be as fun as the other ones, though.

M: The quality of the books isn't as good, but they still had knowledgeable employees. Pretty knowledgeable. I got the feeling they were stoned a lot of the time, but it was College Station. I was stoned all the time. Just kidding, officers.

J: Mom.

M: Yeah. Mom. Our parents are so proud.

J: Oh God.

M: Here's a BookPeople story. My brother's former neighbor worked at BookPeople one summer. He would be going up to costumers, "You need help with anything?", you know. One day a manager took him aside and said, "You don't have to be that friendly." They were telling the more outgoing employees to tone it down. At least they were three years ago. I don't know, it might have been an isolated incident. Maybe that's not "The BookPeople Way."

Everyone in Austin has a horror story about the independent bookstores here.

J: Not Spike Gillespie. She's proud as punch.

M: Well that's because her article is just an advertisement for her show at BookPeople.

J: She went to BookWoman with a Bulgarian writer. And they probably need a feminist bookstore in Bulgaria.

M: Absolutely, and I would support one there.

J: Austin? Maybe not so much.

Kenan: You guys are going to get so sued.

M: Yeah, we know.

J: My dad thinks we should get libel insurance.

M: Maybe we should say at this point that everything we say is satire and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Like the article in Hustler about Jerry Falwell losing his virginity to his mother in the outhouse? Pure satire.

J: This is an editorial. We're not saying these people killed anybody. We're just saying they suck. It's an opinion piece, not an investigative report on the suckiness.

I love this excerpt:

BookPeople, to be sure, has improved recently. Years ago, as a practical joke, my friends relished calling to request a particular book or author, only to be transferred from clerk to clueless clerk. Currently, the store carries one of the best selections of magazines and publications by local writers...

By the way, the magazine section? Excellent.

...but the corkscrew physical organization and New Age-heavy subject selection still baffles.

And the incense selection. Have you seen their incense selection?

M: Huge. Exhaustive. I buy a lot of incense there. Magazines and incense.

J: And $30 candles.

M: And fanciful back massage instruments.

J: In the shape of a dolphin.

M: I was in BookPeople the other day and they sell t-shirts in there. They sell a shirt that says "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups." Who would wear that? What kind of asshole walks around declaring, "Hey look at me! I think people are stupid!"

K: Ten of his friends have the same shirt.

M: And then the "Cats ... Books ... Life is good" shirt? I like books, and I like cats, but if I get like that, kill me. But I like their magazines. I can always find what I'm looking for. Good for them.

J: Punk Planet, and Maximum Rock n Roll.

K: Who reads Maximum Rock n Roll anymore?

J: Fourteen-year-olds with lip piercings.

M: Nice answer. I think it's great they're still publishing.

J: In the exact same format. Have they made no money? Have they expanded not at all? Is it some sort of statement? "Hi, you'll get newsprint all over your goddamn hands when you read this. And we like it that way."

M: It's a shame we're limiting our focus on just this topic, because we could have a seven hour conversation on the state of XLent as a whole.

J: Here's a blurb:

If you are woman (here you roar), BookWoman is for you. This store features a small yet well-chosen selection of books by and for women. Feminist- and lesbian-friendly - and that is all, let me tell you. That's not in the actual blurb. Sorry. BookWoman also hosts a special reading club (this month's selection: Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris) and stocks tapes... Tapes? Who buys tapes? jewelry, cards and other small gifts with a woman-friendly theme.

K: Woman-friendly meaning man-hostile.

M: What's wrong with you? This says BookWoman is for you. What are you, some kind of malcontent?

J: Can I tell you about the book group? I went for about six months. We read Cunt and they didn't like it. But they didn't like it because it wasn't hardcore enough.

M: Seriously? I don't know people got crazier than Inga fucking Muscio. Jesus Christ.

J: We read this other book, Into the Forest, and I was liking it at first. It had that Gary Paulsen thing, you know Hatchet? The book was post World War III or something, they never really explained what had happened. The mother and father had died off and it was just these sisters, 16 and 18 or something. Anyway, one of them gets raped, and the other, in order to help heal her sister, has sex with her. And they're sisters.

Anyway, I brought this up at the book group and no one else was alarmed by this scene. I was the only one who was disturbed by the scene. Everyone was like, "Well, I didn't see it that way."

M: "I saw it in the other sisters-having-sex way."

J: "I saw it in the positive incestuous light."

M: I guess they're just not allowed to have taboos anymore. Incest? No, that can't be a taboo. They're afraid of being judgmental. I'm sick of that. I wish people would start being judgmental. You're having sex with your sister? That's fucked up.

J: We need Dr. Phil. We need Dr. Phil to come to the BookWoman book group and say, "No! What the hell were you thinking?"

M: "Look at my insane fucking bug eyes!" Our feminist cred is quickly diminishing.

J: Any last thoughts?

M: I am going to pledge my support to the first independent bookstore that sells fewer than 12 books by Chomsky.

J: Howard Zinn. How many copies can a bookstore have of A People's History of the United States? My God.

M: Or Manufacturing Consent. Or books that will make you feel less guilty about dropping acid.

J: I just want to buy my books at Amazon and be left alone.

Return to features >>>

Respond to this article>>>