Thursday, March 29, 2007

Scott McLemee (who I met a few weeks ago when he visited Carnegie Mellon) writes in Inside Higher Ed about Borders restructuring, and a new documentary that examines the impact that chain bookstores have had on local, indepedent booksellers. Fortunately, according to Scott, the film gives Borders its due:

But the documentary also gives employees of Borders a chance to make their case — and it’s perhaps a stronger case than anyone on the indie side would want to admit.

Protesters complain that Borders is imposing cultural uniformity across the United States by destroying small businesses. (Some anti-corporate activists, as we are told by one person hostile to the chain, will go into a newly opened branch and quite literally vomit.)

The representatives from Borders respond that the stores are competitive for the simple reason that they are attractive and well-stocked. And they have a point. As with most bookstores, Borders makes a great deal of its money by selling whatever the public is demanding at the moment. But even its least well-stocked stores tend to have a decent selection of work that will only appeal to small audiences. Unlike certain other chains one could mention, Borders has (for example) a philosophy section where you can find Judith Butler and W.V. Quine, rather than gallons of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”

As for me, I like the idea of independent bookstores better than I like the stores themselves. Yes, I'm a hypocrite, because I often preach the virtue of patronizing local merchants instead of the big-box chains, but I buy a lot of books and I like saving a few bucks when I do. Independent stores may carry hard-to-find titles that you might not get at one of the chains (I suspect Scott is taking a shot at Barnes & Noble when he refers to "certain other chains." I probably end up at Barnes & Noble more than Borders simply because there are more of them around here), but they also tend to reflect the tastes of the owner and a much smaller customer base. Borders and other chains might be flush with "The Da Vinci Code" but they have to carry a lot of other titles to appeal to a nationwide audience.

That said, I'd love to live in a neighborhood with its own independent bookstore.


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