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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The plight of the indies 

The Boston Globe has a feature today on niche bookstores in the city and its environs. Not surprisingly, I fixate on the last mention, Kate's Mystery Books, which is now the only independent mystery shop in Boston as the other one, Spenser's Mystery Bookstore, is shutting down. Although Kate's proprietor, Kate Mattes, is doing reasonably well with her store and with her new publishing venture with Justin, Charles & co., she is not without her anxieties:

Mattes acknowledges that even in her niche -- which she will soon no longer share with Spenser's -- she has a never-ending financial struggle. She has unusual assets: She owns the building, lives upstairs, and rents an apartment in the back. And she has no paid staff, only volunteers. "I don't know how other bookstores stay in business," she says.

That is the question, isn't it. Obviously, an independent bookstore is not something to do if you're in it for the money. As a labor of love, it's one that time and time again, people say they wouldn't have started if they had known what the realities were. But at the same time, without the indies, who would be making a concerted effort to sell books that would otherwise disappear, interact on a personal level with customers, and go the extra mile? If anything, I see the future of publishing as a more splintered affair, with targeted campaigns to get a certain kind of audience for a certain kind of book. There will still be the big bestsellers of course, and the books that "everyone has to read", but as small presses pop up to absorb some of the quirkier fare, there has to be bookstores in place who are willing to sell these books. So I don't think the independent bookstore is a dinosaur. But it would be nice if some of them could turn a profit once in a while, somehow. Even if it's just a utopian ideal.

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