|Forsythia in full bloom
A bit of background review is in order here. Laties has been a bookseller since he dropped out of college in 1979 and was hired by the manager of a new B. Dalton store in Chicago. He quickly went on from there to bookstore ownership. His book, Rebel Bookseller, advised would-be shopkeepers in his beloved field:
Improvise your own indie.
Beat back the chains!
That was in 2005. Now? On a panel (Laties was there to promote his book) with bookseller Josh Spencer last September, the “rebel” was sorry that online seller Spencer had opened a storefront in his own neighborhood. Huh? The reasoning is so bizarre that lest I not be believed, I will here quote directly:
Unfortunately, in my experience bookstores like Josh Spencer’s, when successful, can be damaged by the gentrifying forces they unleash. By generating economic growth—because book-lover foot traffic attracts coffee-shop owners and restaurateurs—these kinds of pioneering stores can get priced out of the rental real estate they occupy. The alternative, establishing a bookstore in a library, could ensure that the store would not suffer from changes in real estate values.
You booksellers with open shops or thinking of opening same? You are driving up rents! How dare you? It’s your own throat you’re cutting with your browser-friendly Main Street atmosphere, and you should be ashamed of yourselves! All selling of used books should be done online and only online, or it should be done by Friends of Library groups, not private entrepreneurs!
–Sorry, I have to stop here a minute and ask (1) why Laties thinks bookstores are responsible for driving up rents and (2) why an improvement in a neighbor’s economy is seen as a bad result, other than the possibility that a bookstore will be priced out of the neighborhood. Do we booksellers really influence the rental market that much? Oh, yes, he says, because bookstores are followed by coffee houses and restaurants and overall neighborhood gentrification. (Why not blame the coffee houses?) Well, and is it the responsibility of any retailer to assure that property values remain depressed? This has got to be the most peculiar argument I have ever heard against opening a bricks-and-mortar shop selling used books! Why not credit bookstores with revitalizing neighborhoods? Why shouldn’t coalitions of property owners chase after booksellers, making them good, long-term rental offers in exchange for the gentrification service they provide?
[Skip this paragraph if you like, but I cannot resist a digression. There are people who say we should not be surprised that Aristotle argued in favor of slavery, given the times in which he lived, and they go on to say that we should not criticize him for that view. I cannot disagree more strongly. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, who had some peculiar and reprehensible views of his own (e.g., his penchant for totalitarian government), was able to see that slavery was wrong. More to my present point, however, is the badness of Aristotle’s argument, added to the fact that he felt an argument was necessary. If everyone living at his time had accepted slavery as right and customary, he would have had no reason to mount a defense of it, so obviously there were other opinions. And then the argument, which I will not go over here, but which rests on an analogy that is discarded almost as quickly as it is brought in. As I say, it is a particularly bad argument, and Aristotle was the inventor of Western logic.]
Back to my tirade of the day: Whenever anyone advances a strange argument, it is worth asking why that person thought argument was necessary. Does it help to understand that the writer’s last two jobs have been running bookstores in conjunction with nonprofit museums? He is a salary-man now, not an independent. Moreover, he has developed and sells bookstore management services and would like to see them sold to more FOL (Friends of Library) bookstores. But no, I’m still puzzled. Obviously I'm not seeing the whole picture.
|In analyzing argument, I go for structure first, then fill in details
A “bookstore” within a library does not have to pay rent, and it benefits from an endless stream of books donated to the library and from countless hours put in by dedicated volunteers. No one wants to see libraries put out of business, and no one wants to see library sales stop (least of all those of us who are the biggest spenders at those sales, buying stock for the stores we maintain at great expense and labor). Established library bookstores obviously have a place in today’s world also, although there my feelings are more mixed: whenever tax-supported institutions go into competition with small business, the playing field is far from level. But arguing against the opening of used bookstores in neighborhoods because they would drive up property values? Am I alone in finding this one of the strangest arguments put forth in our admittedly eccentric business?
What point or points does Laties most want to make? He wants to see bookshops open in libraries, and he doesn’t want bookstores to drive up rents in cheap neighborhoods, but the ‘why’ of these two elements and how they go together continues to elude me. Something else he says is that FOL groups should not be relying on professional booksellers to come in on a volunteer basis to price books for stores in libraries. He thinks it would be better to have experts on as paid staff.
Would I give up my independence for a salary and benefits? (Make me an offer, and I’ll think it over!) Is this what Laties has up his sleeve—a continued livelihood for us poor, struggling booksellers? One thing is certain: change is upon us. The world is changing for writers, for publishers, for booksellers, and for librarians. Andrew Laties has always had a lot of ideas. Maybe the ideas would be better off without some of the arguments. Or maybe the arguments would work better if it were clearer why he wants us to share his conclusions.