Cutting access to books

Olsson’s Bookstores in Washington, D. C. were great places to spend time shopping for books.  Several of my friends and I who gathered a few times a year for news directors association board meetings would wander into Georgetown after dinner, walking down M Street and turning right at Wisconsin Avenue and going uphill a couple of blocks to Olsson’s where we would stay until closing, often leaving with bags of books and sometimes CDs.   There were several Olsson’s stores in the area.  I had scoped out several and made sure than no visit to Washington was complete without discovering what the folks at Olsson’s had.

Two or three times, our board meetings coincided with big Book Fairs Olsson’s sponsored where dozens of authors, even Supreme Court Justices, signed their books.   I have a lot of signed volumes in the library at home, including books signed by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor.

But the increasing power of big box bookstores (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million)  and other factors took their toll on John Olsson’s stores.  He closed his anchor store in Georgetown in 2002 and later after declaring bankruptcy closed the last five of those wonderful stores in 2008.   Washington, great city that it is, wasn’t as interesting where there wasn’t an Olsson’s Books and Music store to spend an evening in.

Independent bookstores are wonderful places.  This writer fell in love with the Tattered Cover in Denver years and years ago and with Page One in Albuquerque.  Left Bank Books in the St. Louis West End.  Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas.  What used to be the Treasure House in Jefferson City is down Downtown Book and Toy in Jefferson City, a place I check every Wednesday when the new books and magazines are on the shelves (They’ve sold a lot of my books but they have many more to sell should you need one—and you do.).  And a dear friend in Rolla used to have me in for signings at Books and Things a lot.

And the great, legendary, Strand  in New York City.  If you are ever in New York City and if you like books, make the Strand part of the list that includes the Statue of Liberty and a Broadway play and Ground Zero.

What happens, though, when books are limited to only a few outlets?   What happens when a few conglomerates are able to influence what gets published or sold?

We are seeing that situation develop.   No, it’s not Barnes& Noble.

It’s Amazon.

We are on the mailing lists of several independent book stores.  The Tattered Cover’s most recent “Shelf Awareness” newsletter referred to Left Bank Books in writing about what Amazon is doing to a publisher, a situation that emphasizes the importance of the independent bookstore.

“The dispute between Amazon and Hachette, which shows once again that independent bookstores are the only booksellers who can be counted on to make all books available to readers, has continued into its fourth month–and gotten more heated.

Last Sunday, the group started by author Douglas Preston called Authors United ran a two-page ad in the New York Times calling on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to stop targeting Hachette authors in an effort to force the publisher to agree to Amazon’s terms. Signed by more than 900 authors, the ad states that it’s just plain wrong for a bookseller to block the sale of certain books (even the Wall Street Journal has condemned Amazon’s corporate behavior).

Amazon countered by creating something called Readers United, and sent a letter to Kindle Direct Publishing authors asking them to pressure Hachette. The letter reiterated the same arguments they’ve been using, but with a new twist: misquoting George Orwell. Amazon’s citing, and misuse, of Orwell’s words might lead readers to recall 1984 and think more closely about how the corporation uses its technology. This week, in a letter to the New York Times, Orwell’s estate essentially called Amazon’s approach Orwellian, saying that the company’s selective quoting was “dystopian and shameless… as close as one can get to the Ministry of Truth and its doublespeak.”

Many indie booksellers have responded creatively and positively, setting up special displays of Hachette titles, taking orders for upcoming Hachette books–and, in one case, making home deliveries of one book. It’s been what Kris Kleindienst, owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., called “a teachable moment” for booksellers. “It’s tapped into folks who have never really thought about this.”

The major lesson to be learned from this contretemps: shop locally. As author John Scalzi says, ‘Companies trying to drive the market toward monopoly rarely are on the side of the consumer in the long run.’ –Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers”

Whether you read books from an independent book store or a big-box store, whether you red book books or tablet books or whether you listen to audio books, beware of the time when one entity, or a few entities, can keep us from access to them.  Our ability to learn and to think and to affect our world with our thoughts and their accompanying actions is in the balance.

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