As a city-dweller surrounded by progressives, I’m well aware of the need to “think globally and act locally” on a whole lot of matters. This seems especially true when it comes to commerce. “Shop local” is the mantra, prompting those of us who heed such calls to shop (and generally pay more) at farmer’s markets and mom & pop retailers, especially those in our very neighborhood. This is how vital local businesses can be sustained in an environment rife with soulless, big chain predators. OK. Fine. So I do my part by forking over five bucks to a farmer for a bunch of kale, though I can’t understand why it cost more to buy the stuff direct from the guy who grew it himself. Anyway, as an author, the requirement to support independent bookstores is practically an obligation of sacred significance. I’ve been buying most of my books at a nearby store for many years. I’ve also purchased generous gift certificates there for the friends of my children celebrating birthdays. And while I have my doubts about the farmer with the $5 kale, I’ve always felt good about the book store support.
The independent bookstore in our neighborhood is legendary. The place has been in business since 1981. And as a matter of great local pride, the store not only survived the opening of a Barnes & Noble two blocks away, it has thrived ever since. Like most of my neighbors, I was proud of their triumph in a David vs. Goliath way. But that was until…
My novel came out last spring. I envisioned the debut reading at the local independent bookstore, packed with people I’ve known for that past 15 years: friends and family, plus students and faculty from the respective colleges where I work (both within walking distance of the store). It would be time for me to reap some of the local love I’d been hearing about and practicing for so long. It would be my coming out party as an author, a home game season opener. I wanted to pack that place. But it never happened.
My publisher balked at the idea of arranging a reading there. Their reluctance seemed strange, but I also knew they were tight with an independent bookstore elsewhere (where I had a reading lined up for later in the spring). Still convinced of my destiny to debut the book close to home, I went into the store myself, explained who I was and what I had in mind! No one there seemed all that excited. I was given a name of someone to contact about the reading and another to contact about getting some books in-house. I wrote both addresses repeatedly for months. No response. I stopped by the store on numerous occasions — no one was able to help me. I was encouraged to write the same addresses again. So I did. Nothing. There was no big night for me, and the novel had a fairly quiet launch, both locally and globally.
And then a funny thing happened: The book appeared in the window of the nearby Barnes & Noble. The manager, who lives in the area, got word that I was a local writer, and he checked out my book. Soon, it was not only in the front window but also on one of those high-profile tables by the information booth. I stopped by the store to sign some copies and was treated like a semi-celebrity. Shortly after, a student of mine, who works at the store, wrote to tell me how many copies were being sold and how enthusiastically the staff recommended the book to browsers. I’ve been back on four occasions to sign new copies. What a local feel-good story, courtesy of my friendly-neighborhood mega chain.
In fairness to the other bookstore, I was able to find a manager on a subsequent visit who was friendly and supportive. He ordered some books, which I gladly stopped by to sign. The display position is best described as mediocre. I’m not mad at this store, just a little disillusioned by the pressure to shop local while avoiding the chains. Barnes & Noble may be a corporation, but the one near me employs the people who share my streets and sit in my classroom, and sometimes those people have a better sense of what is to be a local business than those who benefit from the popular pathos. I haven’t totally changed my belief about supporting independent businesses, I’m just more open to the idea of what “local” really means. And I certainly know from which nearby store I’ll be buying my books and gift certificates. Don’t get me started on the kale guy.
Published on Huffington Post: My Friendly Neighborhood (Mega) Bookstore