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Thursday, March 1, 2012

“Rebel” Going “Conservative”?

Forsythia in full bloom
I’ve written about Andrew Laties before, but it’s been a while. Turns out that the author of Rebel Bookseller (and how could I possibly have resisted the title?), is still around, and the name rang a bell, but without a citation to the book I would never have recognized him in the piece published by ForeWord magazine in their Spring 2012 issue.

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.


Andy Laties said...

Hi PJ -- Oh dear, it seems my article can be read completely differently than intended.

Indie bookstores revive neighborhoods. This is good. But then rents go up and indie bookstores sometimes thus get pushed out of the very neighborhoods they helped revive. This is bad.

The best solution is for indie bookstore owners to have bought their buildings at the outset -- before the building values increased. But they rarely could have afforded to do that -- they rarely had enough capital to both start a business and buy a building. So, it's a problem.

I don't know what to do about the problem -- and I've been talking with booksellers about it for decades. One solution I came up with, described in the new edition of Rebel Bookseller, is for supportive neighbors to pool money in an REIT to help booksellers buy buildings.

suggested in the Foreward article -- is for indie booksellers to make deals with libraries, and to open stores inside libraries. These stores could be owned 1) by the booksellers themselves (did I not SAY this in the article?? ARG.) or 2) for the stores to be owned by the library FOL groups.

The article attempts to lay out routes toward this endpoint, and uses a storytelling approach to get there. Maybe I didn't do a good job with the article. I was on a tight deadline!

I am totally in favor of Josh Spencer opening his bookstore! I was just ANXIOUS for him, and my anxiety brought back some old ideas I'd had for a specific kind of good location opportunity: inside libraries.

Best, Andy

Dawn said...

In the small neighboring town of Holly today three new stores opened. We are all thrilled because space has been empty downtown for awhile. And will that cause the remaining vacancies to raise their price? Maybe, it's all supply and demand you know...and maybe we're short sighted to be happy stores are opening in our town, but I don't think so.

I also think independent bookstores are part of what makes a vibrant downtown. Coffee shops can bring bookstores...bookstores can bring coffee's all good. And if the price of real estate goes so high (here in Michigan that's hardly likely in the near term...or even the far term.) that some people have to move and revitalize another neighborhood..well...doesn't that just spread the wealth?

P. J. Grath said...

Andy, thank you so, so much--not only for commenting but for your graciousness and good humor in the face of my knee-jerk response to your article. I knew I was overreacting, but I couldn't help it. All I could see was that I, a struggling entrepreneur who has managed to survive for almost 19 years, was supposed to step aside for the volunteer arm of a tax-supported public institution, and that smarted! Your sympathy for booksellers comes through loud and clear in your comment. I heave a sigh of relief! Again, thank you so much for responding and for not taking offense. Anxiety? Know it well. Part of my world!

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Dawn. Three new stores for Holly is good news! That brings up an important point, which is that all new commercial activity can raise property values, not just bookstores, Does that mean entrepreneurs should not consider opening stores--because rents may rise? Yes, as Andy says, buying a building when prices are low is the best best business strategy. My bookstore, however, like many others, opened almost literally on a shoestring, and buying real estate was never a viable option for me. That said, in July I will have been around for 19 years, and I like to think I have enriched the commercial viability of the village of Northport, as well as adding to the social and intellectual life of residents and vacationers.

One season at a time. That's how I've always done it. Right now we're getting through winter and looking forward to spring. No one's future is guaranteed, not even (sadly) that of public libraries.

Andy Laties said...

Hi PJ and Dawn,

Every day is such a challenge. I may think that "The Big Picture" is a phrase that has meaning... but what's really important is how we deal with "Right Here, Right Now".

My whole set of ideas in that article about How To Solve The Problem of the country not being able to sustain enough bookstores may not be directly applicable to every circumstance. ...Because there are certainly many towns around the country where the arrival of a new bookstore is completely uncontested by local economic factors like incipient rising rents. In lots of places, friendly libraries aren't needed as possible sanctuaries for embattled booksellers to ply their contested trade.

But in places like LA and New York, where the gentrification process is happening because Real Estate Speculation is such a ... sport -- in places like that, the opening of a bookstore is like a whistle being blown for Real Estate Dogs to start barking. A new bookstore tells the investors: Buy Here! Raise Rents In This Neighborhood!

This is not happening of course in towns like .. the one I live in right now myself, Holyoke, Massachusetts, a former industrial city with LOTS of vacancies.

So I think that PJ's critique of my article is in part valid because my underlying assumption is about the general robustness of the imagined local economies in my article. I wish I had said something more about this.

In Los Angeles, today's run-down neighborhood is tomorrow's Hot Bohemia. (Hence my anxiety for Josh Spencer). This is clearly not the case with towns all around the country. If I opened a bookstore in Holyoke, as friends have urged me to do, it would not set off a land rush.. Or in anycase, the land rush would take 30 years to materialize.

Arg. It took years to get Rebel Bookseller into print, and I had plenty of time to try correct all of my vaguenesses....

Anyway, congratulations to everyone who can cause a bookstore to survive for one more day!!


P. J. Grath said...

“Every day is such a challenge.” No argument on that one, Andy! I have various responses to your second comment here, and they may be more random than focused, gut I’ll just cast them out there like a handful of chicken feed....

I think of bookstores in Paris, France. The whole book industry in France has government price protection. Not going to happen here. The number of cafes in Paris, on the other hand, is shrinking wildly. It’s cafes that are vanishing! Rising rents are forcing them out of business. Hmmm.

In Michigan towns larger than my village of Northport and way smaller than L.A. and New York, bookstores inside libraries are not unknown. There’s one in Ann Arbor, one in Kalamazoo. I don’t think they are private businesses. I’m pretty sure they’re run by the FOL volunteers. Are they competition to bookstores? If so, are they unfair competition? Or do the bookstores welcome them? I don’t know. I do know that one long-time bookstore in Ann Arbor went out of business two years ago—and A2 is a book town.

It might have sounded as if I was kidding about property owners asking a bookseller to set up shop, but if you’re right that a bookstore is a signal of upwardly trending values, does it not seem like a good idea? The property owners would make the initial investment in rehabbing the building for the bookseller and give the bookseller a set number of years at reasonable rent in exchange for his or her attractive presence. It couldn’t last forever, but what does? On the other hand, I can’t help wondering—seems I’ve known a lot of bookstores in shabby urban neighborhoods. There were there because rents were cheap, and the neighborhoods stayed shabby and the bookstores stayed in place.

There are so many factors to consider when opening a bookstore (if one were to plan carefully, which I certainly did not back in 1993, but it’s worked out okay). Real estate values is one piece of the puzzle. Demographics is another. What is the age of the population in the town? In the neighborhood? Then, when you look at the library, what is the average age of patrons? Who are the biggest shoppers in the area, and where do they come from? My bookstore is in a small, northern, rural village, the school-age population shrinking, the retired newcomer population rising. The area overall has a mixed economic base of tourism and agriculture. Without the tourists, vacationers, and summer people, I wouldn’t have a prayer. With them, I eke out a living the same way the farmers do, hanging on from one year to another by my fingernails, doing this because I love it so much I can’t imagine giving it up. That's Right Here, Right Now, I guess.

Andy, thanks again. Conversation is great!

dmarks said...

This reminds me I need to do the post on the major animated movie from a year or two ago in which the main character was a woman who ran an independent bookstore in a small town in the Upper Midwest.

P. J. Grath said...

Yes, please, dmarks! You know I am always on the lookout for movies with bookstore themes or settings.

Gerry said...

This whole conversation raises so many interesting notions that I am at a loss as to where to begin, so I'm going to go away and think. Also shovel. It's a fine thing when people engage each other in a serious, respectful discussion on a topic about which they actually know something. Sort of what bookstores--and libraries--are all about, isn't it? Partly anyway.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Gerry. Andy does sound like a fine chap, doesn't he? I hope we can meet someday. Still, Andy, if you're still out there, I have one question and one exclamation: The question: Why should only online booksellers be invited into libraries? The exclamation: Those hoggish dealers who scoop piles of books into boxes to look through later and decide what to buy WOULD NOT BE ME and WOULD NOT BE ANY OF THE BOOKSELLER COLLEAGUES I RESPECT! It is rude, greedy, hoggish behavior and goes completely against the otherwise very pleasant treasure-hunting that goes on at library book sales. No, any books I scoop into a box are books I'm going to BUY, and anyone who does otherwise gets a big hiss and a boo from me!

Phew! I feel much better now, having gotten that off my chest.... :)

Andy Laties said...

I recommend that you join the FOLUSA listserv. It's really fascinating to see what the Friends of Library volunteers think of the tasks they are performing and the people they work with.

However, speaking from experience, if you aren't an FOLUSA volunteer yourself, you should not post comments to the list!