04 June 2006

Small, Persistent Pleasures

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I rarely buy books solely on the basis of their cover art and title, but in 1993, largely on an impulse I purchased Amanda Filipacchi’s first novel, Nude Men. At the small bookstore where I bought it, the staff said it was a fun read and indeed, I liked it – it felt vigorous, alive, and was very funny. Since then, about once a year, in whatever bookstore I was then perusing, I would look to see whether Ms. Filipacchi had published anything else. Somehow I missed Vapor, which came out in 1998 or 1999, and apparently I have not checked in the last 12 months, because Ms. Filipacchi’s novel Love Creeps was published in June 2005.

I spent much of this past week in Portland, Oregon. I did not have much free time, but managed to escape my meetings for a few hours – long enough to get over to Powell’s City of Books, which is definitely one of the best bookstores in the United States. I will sidestep (for now) the broader arguments about supporting independent booksellers and instead tell you that Powell’s is a vast, multi-level store that is a wonder of organizational clarity: rooms and topics are color-coded; maps are available; and the staff at the various and copious information desks actually know their stuff, in a deeper way than I have ever found at any chain book retailer (or, for that matter, at just about any other bookstore).

Powell’s biggest strength – indeed, its pure genius – is that new and used books are shelved side by side, as are hardcovers and paperbacks. Looking for Lawrence Block’s The Topless Tulip Caper? On my visit, Powell’s had three copies on the shelf: a paperback, and two different hardcovers, all used, and ranging in price from $7.50 to $40. Current best-sellers, like The Da Vinci Code, are available in both formats, new and used, priced from $4.95 for a used copy of the paperback to $29.95 for a brand new hardcover (not to mention new and used version on CD and cassette). The same is true in all subject areas, which increases the likelihood one will find a desired book, as well as make it possible to economize (if that is an objective). All of these same format options are available on their web site, too, making Powell’s a powerhouse for online book orders. And in my experience, their descriptions of the condition of their used books is very accurate: I recently ordered a used, hardcover copy of Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary ($14.95) for my Feminism & Me series and it is indistinguishable in condition from a new copy that normally sells for an additional $11.

Wandering through Powell’s, after perusing for an hour and having run through much of my mental checklist of desired books, I remembered that it had been some time since I’d last checked the F’s in search of Filipacchi. I looked – and I found: a hardcover of Love Creeps, new, but on sale for $11.95. I opened up the front cover: a first edition – a nice bonus. I read the first page; it reminded me of A.M. Homes, another author with a dark and sensuous sense of humor. I bought it, went back to my hotel, and started reading. Half-way through, I discovered that the book really was new, not that there had been any doubt: the corners of the pages on a 30-page section in the middle had not even been fully cut or broken apart by another reader.

Several days later, and I’m home now. I would not normally plug a book before I have finished, but Love Creeps is clever and funny, and Amanda Filipacchi deserves a wider readership, and somehow I doubt this book will let me down. (A.M. Homes deserves readers, too; The Safety of Objects is terrific, as is In A Country of Mothers.) And here is where I’ll come back and plug independent bookstores, too, like the terrific Murder Ink. on New York’s Upper West Side (which is a much better store than its not-very-user-friendly web site would suggest) and Washington’s Politics & Prose, easily the best store in a city that desperately needs help generating new ideas.

The (otherwise) smart economist Tyler Cowen recently wrote an article for Slate with the obnoxious title “What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For? Not much.” I agree with Cowen that big-box booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders have brought many benefits to book consumers, particularly for out-of-the-way communities that might not otherwise be able to build or sustain stores of this scale and breadth. Likewise, I agree that there is an unwarranted pretentiousness that often goes along with non-chain stores and their clientèle – they are still stores, after all – and that the lower prices the large retailers have been able to negotiate with publishers are certainly to the advantage of us, the consumers. All fair points.

So, call it nostalgia (as Cowen does) for a different era, or an overly-intellectual desire not to have to spell “Kafka” when asking for one of his book (as Cowen notes that he did). But I think he’s wrong when he devalues the argument that because of independent bookstores, “high-quality but inaccessible books can slowly build their reputations through reader word-of-mouth and eventually take the literary world by storm.” I found Amanda Filipacchi because I shopped at a small store willing to stock a first novel from an unknown author, and I bought it because they said it was a good read. And in being man enough to admit that I have shopped at my fair share of big-box booksellers, I will also say that I have never found Ms. Filipacchi’s novels on those stores’ shelves. Is she a super-star author, whose career was launched because of indy bookstores? Maybe not. But while Cowen’s arguments make sense in the purer realms of economics, at the same time maybe the biggest benefit these small bookstores provide is the same diversity Cowen says he values as part of our economy: a diversity of opinion, of pricing, of merchandise, and of experience. That diversity seems worth sustaining, even if not a single big box store has to close to make it happen.


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