Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
In some places, governments consider independent bookstores a vital part of the urban fabric.
There’s no end to the good things people have to say about independent bookstores. Some of it is teary-eyed hyperbole—they reflect the soul of a community; they offer the comforts of a second home—but even if such appraisals are sentimental, they're always sincere. The local bookstore may be a repository for literary history, an instrument for social change, or a place to meet neighbors. That and a nice place to buy books.
Bookstore love isn’t always so abstract. In 2002, threatened by the looming prospect of a Borders across the street, Austin’s BookPeople hired consultancy Civic Economics. The firm found that for every $100 spent at the bookstore, the homegrown shop put $45 back into the local economy, compared to just $13 for the national chain. The Borders development, which had been set to receive about $2 million in incentives from the city, eventually fell through.
So the recent news that online bookselling giant Amazon will shift its strategy toward offering same-day shipping—investing hundreds of millions of dollars in supply centers near urban areas and conceding to pay sales taxes for that privilege—has spawned widespread concern, and at least one doomsday scenario in which brick-and-mortar bookstores (and maybe a lot more) will all finally go the way of the dinosaur. With Borders gone and Barnes and Noble flailing, what chance does your local bookstore stand?
Turns out, it depends on where you are. In Paris, the government started protecting indie bookstores back in the 1980s, a tacit admission that the corner bookshop—like a museum or a park—is a public amenity that transcends market value. France’s 1981 Lang Law, the brainchild of Minister of Culture Jack Lang (who also came up with the Fête de la Musique, the Paris-wide free music festival on the summer solstice), fixed the price of books nationwide, preventing chain stores (and now, Amazon) from undercutting independents. As a result, the French capital’s network of bookstores is in good shape.
Last month, the Israeli government passed a similar law in an attempt to stop price-gouging at chain bookstores which, according to a report from the Trade and Labor Ministry, was forcing locally owned bookstores out of business. Israeli author Meir Shalev, one of several prominent writers who pushed for the legislation, did not mince his words: "We must struggle against the belligerent, crude and culture-less gangs—the two largest bookstore chains."
There has been bookstore protectionism at the municipal level as well. Paris offers subsidies to independent bookstores, and the French planning agency Semaeste—in collaboration with city hall—reserves and discounts certain commercial spaces for bookstores to maintain the city’s retail diversity and literary tradition. Shanghai bookstores receive government subsidies, and similar efforts may be underway in Taipei.
Here in the U.S., most bookstores survive in tales of grassroots preservation or community campaigns. Price-fixing is undoubtedly the least likely American solution, though as Jason Boog has pointed out at NPR, booksellers and publishers actually did persuade FDR to enforce a price floor to prevent Macy’s from undercutting small book retailers with loss-leader pricing on Gone with the Wind during the Great Depression. (That policy was later declared unconstitutional, but it did throw a wrench in the Macy’s strategy.) This April, though, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit accusing Apple and several publishers of colluding to raise the price of e-books to compete with Amazon’s price-discounting. Don’t expect to see federal protection of local bookstores via price-setting anytime soon.
There are, however, other ideas. Jack McKeown, former president and CEO of the Perseus Books Group, proposed in 2009 (and re-proposed in Publisher’s Lunch last year) the creation of a Neighborhood Bookstore Development Bank (NBDB) to invest in bookstores and promote their importance to developers and city officials. His inspiration came in part from special-purpose investment vehicles like the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which provided loans for independent neighborhood grocery stores (in 2010, the Obama administration committed over $400 million to invest in grocery stores and eradicate food deserts). It’s hard to argue that bookstores are as important as groceries—you can’t eat books, you can only devour them—but as an endangered small business and, often, de facto community center, they might deserve some of the same advantages.
Top image: While Away Books in Roseburg, Oregon, courtesy Flickr user brewbooks.