It’s the 4th of July this week, and whether that means your store is in full summer tourist mode (have you eaten today? drink some more water, and how about a little snack?….) or you are wistfully straightening shelves in an empty store because your regular customers are off at the lake, let’s take a few minutes to celebrate our independence, shall we?
As I flew home from Ci7 in Pittsburgh late Friday night, both my mind and heart were full of ideas, inspiration, and the faces of fellow booksellers – all passionately engaged in our industry, cheering each other on while simultaneously stomping their feet in frustration (sometimes in the same breakout session) and sharing stories of the successes and challenges in running this bookish business. The one constant theme, echoed by the staffs of large operations with multiple locations and from the owners of microstores with multiple challenges was this: as indie booksellers we value our independence. We cherish (and sometimes, admittedly bemoan) the right to make every single decision, from the titles we carry to the ways we promote them. We guard our individual identities fiercely, and we reject so much that might make our lives “easier” but could also take away our choices and our own unique view of what a bookstore should be. As I sat at roundtables, listened to Q&A sessions, and eavesdropped at conversations in the hotel bar between colleagues, a qualifying phrase led almost every explanation….. “at OUR store…. we do this” “for ME… it seems that this is true…” “I FEEL that this is important”…. no simple recitation of fact, or rote-memorized wisdom, but the sharing of personal experience in an indie business, largely shaped by the values of the owner and their staff. This amazingly quirky and creative occupation of bookselling, in which every single product we offer is available from a myriad of other sources, and the competition for the attention of the readers we serve is unlimited, yet the relationship between bookseller and customer is unique and personal, and serves as the very definition of independent in the retail landscape.
It is a tricky, complicated sense of self-autonomy we seek, for as much as we guard our independence as business owners, we crave the support of our publisher partners to make our businesses financially viable, our association leadership to protect us from larger disasters brought by government trade policies and judicial meddling in free enterprise, and our bookselling colleagues to help us guard the values and norms that make our staff and customers feel safe and welcome in our physical space. We call out injustices in voices made brave by the very room in which we stand: a room full of other booksellers, who may not agree with our position but fiercely protect our right to be heard. This community, made up of the most diverse literary folk, whose opinions about everything under the sun (provided they are printed on bound pages, and are preferably available in hardcover without competition from a paperback bookfair edition) are as wide and variable as the reasons we get for returns. (“It’s too long, it’s too short, it’s too wordy, the pictures are too graphic, there aren’t any pictures, there’s kissing, it’s blue, the dog dies…..”) This incredible cross-section of literary nerds, brought together not by a commonality of opinion on politics, religion, or ethnicity, age, or education, are simply drawn to our shared careers through the love of stories – of books, and the people that love them, too.
Even as I would love to close this post with the chorus from “Sit Down, John!” from the musical “1776,” [https://youtu.be/BPq2E2nraCc] it would be inaccurate to tie this Independence Day Week post together with a reference to the colonists in Philadelphia, and a comparison of our bookselling community to those who argued over a declaration and its clauses. For while we have a bit in common with those independent thinkers who struggled against the constraints of outside rule, our bookselling community is so much more aware of our responsibility towards those who are NOT in that room, hoping to add their voices to the rules of the society we wish to create. The world of books brings us face-to-face with an underlying truth: we are each called to serve our communities INDEPENDENTLY, and our contract with readers is larger than simply protecting our own free expression of ideas. We must support each other as booksellers in our efforts to challenge the status quo, and we must make room for all the uncomfortable conversations that those challenges require. We must demonstrate, through the ways we listen to each other, how we wish for the words of each author we carry and each reader we serve to be valued and cherished. We are independent, and we believe in the freedom of ideas, and the power of story. And that sometimes causes fireworks, but is always a reason to be grateful.