I hadn't seen my friend the cynic for a long time. Years, maybe. We met on Queen Street last week. After the usual chat about what we'd been doing, the kids, the weather, he asked me if I'd heard about the big new Chapters bookstore opening up at the mall. What did I think about it, he wondered?
I guess it's a pretty good thing, I said. Choice is always good. If you know what you want ahead of time, any good bookstore will order for you, and you can even get it on the Internet these days. But what a good bookstore does is display books so that they catch your eye -- and a great bookstore is one that displays books that just happen to be the ones I want. So, sure, I think this new store will be good to have around.
Well, he said, but what about the bookstores we've already got? Not good enough for you?
Sure, I said, they're fine. We do pretty well here these days. Stores like Westminster and Kingfisher are comfortable and warm and the staff knows what they're doing. And I like getting email from Chaucer, the cat at Kingfisher.
But you know, I remember the first time I went to a really big bookstore -- it was a Borders', in Michigan. I went in to order a book for my sister. I knew it was a book I'd never find on a shelf, but I thought if I ordered it she could pick it up when it came in. But not only were there two copies of my book right there on the shelf, there were a half dozen others I wanted to buy. I actually did buy a couple of them. That can only happen in a bookstore with lots of stock. So I guess there's a place for both kinds of stores.
Yeah, he said. You haven't learned much since the last time we talked, have you? What do you suppose happens to your nice comfortable little bookshop when it can't compete with the big place up the hill? Who'll feed your cat friend, Chaucer?
What they say is that the big places don't really put the little ones out of business, I said. They generate more business. Look at the big new building supply place, or the superstores.
Oh, right, he said. I suppose you still shop at the old Tingley's?
Um . . . it's not there any more, I admitted.
Yep, he said. And there's something worse than that, and I bet you haven't even thought about it.
Well, Hunt, he said, brace yourself, because you're going to have to think about it. The fewer, and the bigger, the bookstores are, and the more the market for books is dominated by one or two big chain stores, the more publishers will be forced to decide what to publish by checking with them first. They won't want to publish your book if the big chains aren't going to carry it. If you can't get the book in the back door of Chapters and Borders and Barnes & Noble, there won't be much point in publishing at all. You might as well just print copies yourself and mail them to family and friends.
I never thought of that, I said.
Of course you didn't, he said, you're not cynical enough. Let's go have a coffee.
Where'll we go? I said. I understand there's a Starbucks in the new bookstore.