Death of an Indy Bookstore

Earlier this week I learned that Edgartown Books was closing for good at the end of February. I’m sorry, yes, not least because Edgartown Books took enough interest in my novel, The Mud of the Place, to keep it in stock, but it’s sort of like mourning the death of the last survivor of World War I: one makes note of the passing, but life goes on pretty much unchanged. The war is long since over.

Celebrating Lammas’s anniversary, probably 1982 or 1984. From left: owner-manager Mary Farmer, yours truly, and Tina Lunson, printer.

Bookstores were once the center of my life. From 1981 to 1985, I was the book and periodical buyer, and in effect the assistant manager, at Lammas Women’s Shop, the femininist bookstore in Washington, D.C. Lammas was part of a vibrant and far-flung network of feminist publishers, newspapers, magazines, printers, record distributors and record labels. That network in turn was connected to all sorts of independent bookstores and creative outlets, progressive, gay, African American — our common denominator was that none of us were being well served, or in many cases served at all, by mainstream publishing and bookselling.

Historic Unicorn Tales T-shirt, the only brown T in my ridiculously large collection

When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, Lammas was hands-down the best job I’d ever had. (My other best job was still in the future.) No surprise that I put in applications at both the island’s bookstores, one of which was Edgartown Books’ predecessor. At that point it was (I think) still called Unicorn Tales but would within a few years become Bickerton & Ripley — which was of course widely known as Bicker & Rip. Unicorn Tales never responded to my application. The other store did offer me a job. It paid $4/hour, which would go up to $4.25 after a training period. Lammas had been paying me what the owner was paying herself: $5.50/hour and my HMO membership. No, said the much richer bookstore when I tried to negotiate: a part-time position was out of the question.

I couldn’t afford to live on Martha’s Vineyard and eventually buy a car for $4/hour, so this marked both the end of my bookselling career and my introduction to island economics: there are plenty of full-time jobs that one can only afford to hold if one has a trust fund, rent-free accommodations, and/or a spouse who makes enough to pay the rent and keep the car running.

Nevertheless, I continued to carry the torch for independent bookstores. I knew from firsthand experience that books could change and even save lives; wasn’t it the booksellers who connected readers with books they sometimes didn’t know they were looking for? Bookstores organized readings and other book-related events. Bookstores introduced local writers to a wider audience. Bookstores were indispensable.

From at least the early 1980s on, indy bookstores were being seriously threatened by the rise of the big discount chains, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Crown, and others — and by the penchant of big commercial publishers to offer deep unpublicized discounts and other perks to the chains. At first it seemed that the general-interest indies were being hardest hit, the stores whose stock overlapped that of the chains but that couldn’t offer mega-discounts on best-sellers. But the tidal wave soon caught up with the specialty bookstores that served marginalized readers, not least because these stores (like Lammas and just about every feminist store I knew of) were seriously undercapitalized. When I set about promoting my novel, in 2008, fully 90 percent of the stores I’d known in my bookselling days were gone. Including Lammas.

One lasting lesson from my bookselling days was that for most people most of the time, convenience trumps commitment. Lammas was located across town from D.C.’s main shopping districts and workplaces: for many women, it meant a special trip, and rather than take the subway they’d pick up the book they were looking for at the nearest discount store or the gay bookstore near Dupont Circle. They’d come to Lammas for the books and the personalized service they couldn’t find anywhere else.

Thus I gradually fell out of the bookstore browsing habit. Through the mid-1990s, I was doing a lot of reviewing, so plenty of good books arrived unbidden in my p.o. box. Bicker & Rip was in Edgartown, which has been off my beaten path for almost all the years I’ve lived on Martha’s Vineyard, i.e., I’d have to make a special trip and then find a place to park. The more convenient store never had anything I was looking for: its fantasy/science fiction section looked like it had been bought by monkeys, and the women’s sections were jammed with the pop psych stuff beloved of New York publishers. Books from independent publishers and university presses were nowhere to be found — and in the fields I was most interested in, this was where the action was. When I went into the store at all, it was usually to buy notecards or wrapping paper.

Odd, perhaps, for a lifelong reader, I fell out of the reading habit while working on Mud and never got back into it. Why? I read for a living. The people I hung out with rarely talked about books; I don’t have a TV or follow the mainstream media so I didn’t know what “everybody” was talking about. Island bookstores had long since fallen off my psychic map. The serious and unsurprising side effect is that I forgot why I’d ever believed that writing was important. What the hell was I doing on the planet anyway?

Strange but true, it was getting on Facebook exactly a year ago that started to turn things around. Facebook is like an ongoing salon, its conversations made up of words and pictures. Pretty soon I was once again part of a world where words mattered. After a few months I started this blog: Yeah! I’m a word person again!

Then, in December, I got my first e-reader. Yes, it is screamingly ironic that my beloved Nooky was produced by Barnes & Noble, one of the mega-chains that helped kill independent bookselling. I’ve bought more books from Barnes & Noble in the last six weeks than I had in my whole previous life: for decades I wouldn’t be caught dead in any of those chain bookstores.

But now, for the first time in many years, I’m reading three books at once. And now that the world of e-books and e-publication has become part of my psychic map, I’m back to the long-haul writing. I know there are readers out there, and I believe that my words can reach them.

A very belated addendum, November 17, 2014: Edgartown Books reopened a few months after it “closed for good.” It’s still open today. Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven moved across the street to what was most recently Bowl & Board. That was a couple of years ago. I still haven’t been in the new store. I hear that they’ve been a little more friendly to island authors since Mud came out, but island bookstores just aren’t on my psychic map.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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10 Responses to Death of an Indy Bookstore

  1. adrienneparks says:

    What ever happened to Judy W, Leslie R, and Mary Farmer? I used to shop there all the time. – Adrienne Parks

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    • In the last couple of years I’ve connected with some buddies from my D.C. days thanks to Facebook. Some are still in D.C.; many aren’t. What a great bunch of women. Haven’t been in touch with Mary but heard that she and a partner are raising a child. Judy W. I don’t remember; was this Leslie of Lielin Jewelry (who co-founded Lammas)? I’m bad with last names, and I didn’t really know either Leslie or Linda. My Lammas co-worker Deb M. recently retired from Politics & Prose bookstore. Donna N., who succeeded me as Lammas book buyer, moved to Minneapolis long time ago to work at Amazon. Amazon is gone, but Donna’s still in Minnesota. I think about those days and those people a lot. Trying to get back the vibrancy, the sense of possibility, the belief that nothing was more important than the written word (except maybe the sung word!). Thanks for posting!

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  2. Great post…thanks for sharing. It’s quite disturbing to learn about the impending demise of the Edgartown Bookstore. Indies fill a special void in the bookstore world, and it is unfortunate that economies of scale (the big chain bookstores) are killing off the Indies. I imagine that it won’t be long before e-readers do some serious damage to the chain bookstores’ bottom line.

    That said, like everything else in the world, nothing stays the same and we’ll just have to adjust to new ways of purchasing and reading books. I do not yet own an e-reader, but that will probably not be the case for long.

    Best,
    Kevin

    Like

  3. Anda Divine says:

    In Minneapolis, where I’m from, the independent True Colors bookstore has announced that it will close in February 2012. True Colors is the former Amazon Bookstore,which called itself “the oldest independent feminist bookstore in North America.” and operated for 40 years. It was a linchpin of the LGBT community in the Twin Cities.

    Details at:
    http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/50008-feminist-bookstore-true-colors-to-close-in-february.html

    BUT!,Louise Erdrich’s own bookstore, Birchbark Books, is still alive and well in Minneapolis (www.birchbarkbooks.com). They have a website to drool over and their online customer service is outstanding.

    BTW, I am not planning to get an e-reader. Most of my book budget is spent in used books stores, especially Too Many Books in Roanoke, VA, which is 32 minutes from my house.

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    • Small world — Donna N., who took my job as Lammas book buyer when I left down, eventually moved to Minneapolis to work at Amazon. And I boycotted Amazon.com for years because of their legal bullying over the name. I still buy from them reluctantly, and as seldom as possible; usually it’s to get to one of their affiliate vendors who’s got an OP title I’m looking for. I do make liberal use of Amazon.com in checking bibliographies, however. 🙂

      I’m going to check out Birchbark Books for sure. Thanks for the tip!

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  4. I also got an e-reader much to my own disgust (have yet to read an entire book on it) as I still love the feel of a paperback in my hands. I’m convinced the last lonely indy on the Vineyard would do a better business if they banned the West Tiz library’s annual book sale. After buying 2 grocery sacks full of books for $6 I now find it almost impossible to buy a book at retail or even discount prices. Ah well…I still have a sack full to last me until August!

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  5. Sharon Stewart says:

    The independents are dying off one by one in my town, too. It is truly sad. When I was a kid (thousands of moons ago), I dreamed of owning a bookstore. One of its best features would be a kids’ drinking fountain, flowing with free Swiss cream soda. (Can you tell that in our family we weren’t allowed to drink pop?) Sigh.

    I, too, was a voracious reader before I became an editor. It’s something about your eyes going left to right, top to bottom, day after day after day, that seems to kill the habit (we’ll have to do a poll one day, Susanna).

    I love your blog. I devour every word. I come here to be refreshed. I have a growing sense of what it’s like behind the scenes on MV now. If I ever get there I’ll almost feel as though I’ve had my feet in the mud of the place.

    I really like that photo. You haven’t aged a day, BTW.

    Sorry for all the non sequiturs.

    Like

    • The bookstore as Big Rock Candy Mountain! 🙂

      I strongly suspect that neither of the Vineyard’s two indy bookstores would have survived this long had they been within hailing distance of a discount chain bookstore. The market here just isn’t big enough to support mega-retailing, except (maybe) in July and August. I also suspect that the joke about horse breeding is also true of bookselling: Q: “How do you make a small fortune breeding horses?” A: “Start with a large one.”

      I’ve heard many, many writers say that they started writing because they were avid readers — but once they “went pro,” i.e., started selling their books, they had no time to read for pleasure. Research, yes; blurbing their friends’ books, maybe; pleasure, no. For me it’s mostly about how many hours I’m willing to stay in and sit still. Editing and writing between them use up 7-10 hours most days. That’s enough!

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  6. Subhakar Das says:

    Sad and most unfortunate. That said, I enjoyed your writing…will be back for more.

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  7. It’ s a shame, but bookstores are going the way of the dinosaurs. E-books are the future. But paperbacks are still more fun.

    Like

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