26 March 2014

Mega Decisions

If you are a book reader or a book lover, you may have seen this article in today's New York Times.  It's a sign of the times in big cities (and probably elsewhere) that rents are ridiculous, and some businesses have a hard time staying put.  In this case, the article is about bookstores, which are one of my particular loves.

These days, too many places are full of "mega" stores, or chains that everyone knows.   I will admit that sometimes, I'm glad to see a Starbucks in a strange town, because I know exactly what I will get there.  I'm not a big coffee drinker, but when I do have a cup of coffee, I'm pretty picky about it.  However, a strange town without a Starbucks is also fine, and there's always the chance I will find something better than I could have ever imagined.  Even here in Philadelphia, there are places with wonderful coffee that are not national chains.  I would be depressed if they had to pack up and move because they were priced out of the city.

But - back to bookstores.  For the last decade or more, people have been lamenting the demise of the independent bookstore.  Once Amazon became a habit, and Barnes & Noble moved in, many small, independent, interesting, and quirky bookstores closed because they couldn't match prices.  The MegaBookstores ruined the neighborhood bookstore.

I will be the first one to be appalled that local bookstores are disappearing.  There is nothing more fun to me than walking into a bookstore, to discover its personality, and also find things that I might not ever even think of seeing everywhere else.  To a book nerd like me, *that* is a fun experience.  Fortunately, there are still some of these bookstores in the Philadelphia area, albeit fewer than when we first moved here, many years ago.

But I usually buy books from Barnes & Noble.  And that is related to the real subject of this post.

On a personal level, I would rather go just about anywhere than ever be caught dead in a Walmart.  It's a strictly personal thing - I know plenty of people who shop there regularly, and love it.  Walmart is someplace that to me, represents evil, and the loss of local flavor.  It's one of the "Mega" stores that has ruined local businesses, and even in some cases, made local downtowns ghost towns.

So given my feelings for Walmart, why would I buy books from Barnes & Noble, one of the Mega bookstores that have led to the demise of some local stores?  Well, the short answer is - money.  Ah yes, money, the answer to so many questions.

When we first moved to Philadelphia, it was because The Tim had accepted a job at a scholarly press here, as the Assistant Director.  He had been in publishing at that point for about 15 years, moving up in the ranks, and he loved his work.  We were both thrilled that he had gotten this job.  And for nine years, he worked at it and did really well.  Then the Director left for other pastures, and The Tim was named Acting Director.  This was a job he held for about 18 months, during which the press in question had one of the best years in its history.  But when they hired a permanent Director, he was passed over in favor of someone else.  Unlike me, he was OK with it, and worked to get the new person settled in.  Then we went on vacation, and on our first day back to work, the new person called him in to tell him his job had been eliminated, and he would be finished by the end of that month.

This stunk, big-time.  But after looking into it, we realized that we could not afford to mount a legal fight, especially just for the satisfaction.  So we tried to figure out how to move on.

The Tim found two jobs - one was a part-time bookseller position at Barnes & Noble, the store in question being very close to our house.  The other was as a one year, permanent substitute as a fifth-grade teacher in one of the Philadelphia public schools.  He would teach all day, work in the evenings, and all day on Sundays.  And though he loved the teaching job as much as the bookstore job, in order to do that, he would have had to return to school for his teaching certificate, and then start at the bottom of the pecking order for seniority.  He decided that he wasn't up for that, so signed on at the end of the school year to work full-time at the bookstore.

All of these years later, he is still there.  He is now one of the Assistant Store Managers.  He loves it, and they [apparently] think he does a good job.  Working at Barnes & Noble has meant that we could pay our mortgage, stay in our house, pay our bills, and sometimes take a wonderful vacation.  They have treated him well, providing benefits that are much better than ones I've had from my two most recent employers.

Why am I telling you this?  Because I think it's important to remember, when you read about MegaStores making it more and more difficult for small businesses, that it does not mean evil is taking over our lives.  In the case of bookstores, just because one was local and independent, did not mean it was worthwhile.  But unfortunately, some really good ones got lost, and are still getting lost, in the shuffle, and not always because of high rents, like the article mentioned above is saying.

And I would also ask you to remember that for some of us, MegaStores have been a godsend.  And when you seek out a local store someplace - which you SHOULD DO, remember that we do not live in a perfect world, where the combination of both things would mean we could always find everything, every time we were looking.

For me, most of the time, I'm "staying with the one who brung me."


Wanderingcatstudio said...

Very good points. And I think a lot of economists would agree too - you need a good mix of large and small.

Anonymous said...

I spread my allegiance between both. After many, many years without an independent (new book) bookstore, we got one. She specializes in local authors and cookbooks and is located in a local foods vendor alliance of shops. It's a perfect fit for her genre and I shop there for what she sells.

When I want a mass-market book, magazine, or some of those cute giftie things --- I head to my local B&N. Works for me BOTH ways.

BTW --- for what it's worth, I even hit the WalMart once in awhile. They carry things that the regular grocer doesn't have and in reality, my local grocer (Publix, Whole Foods and Fresh Market) are essentially big-box stores.

Bonny said...

I really like how you've presented both sides of Mega vs. Local. I dearly loved our local bookstore and loved supporting it until Borders moved into town and the independent just couldn't compete. I never loved Borders, but eventually shopped there and came to enjoy the availability of books and coffee. Now my closest bookstore is an hour's drive away, so I find myself using the library more and ordering online from Amazon and B&N. It's often about money, but sometimes it's about location and availability, too. I wish I had a local yarn store within driving distance, but that's not the case, so almost all of my yarn is purchased online. Thanks for the reminder that Mega does not mean some sort of evil corporation staffed by robots, but rather by hard-working people like your husband, and hopefully there's room for both Mega and Local.

Lorraine said...

Bridget- In Canada, we have "Chapters" and "Indigo"- and I usually will not purchase from them. They allow people to sit in the store and read magazines, licking their thumbs- and after seeing this I am supposed to pay upwards of 10.00 for a magazine?
Also, they give better prices online, and are doing themselves out of business. I am all for free enterprise, but I don't like the owners' business tactics.

They put alot of long standing Toronto independents out of business, and were almost vicious about it- so we are now seeing their stores closing. This is no reflection on the employees, just bad business practice on the part of the owners.

Mereknits said...

Great post! I am a B & N fan, we do not have any independent book stores near me, B & N is it, I love the selection, the people and all the knitting books. You are so right mega stores employ people too.

kathy b said...

very good points well taken

Kym said...

What a wonderful post! Things are always more complicated that we think -- especially when it comes to economics! I find my local B&N to be welcoming and comfortable -- with an excellent selection of books and knowledgeable staff. It's not a "big box" shell of a bookstore at all . . . and I like it. I spread my book-buying around: B&N, Amazon (too convenient to pass by), independent stores, iTunes for my iBooks, and the library. It's wonderful to have so many choices available. (And I'm so glad your husband found happiness at B&N!)

Carrie#K said...

It's all complicated, isn't it? The big businesses are the ones that can afford the pay and the benefits, the small ones help the neighborhood flourish.

We're seeing a disheartening trend, we've lost five of seven independent bookstores and two chains. Both Borders and Barnes & Noble are gone (although there's a B&N in the town over, but still!)

Caffeine Girl said...

I think B&N provides a great service to readers and writers alike. Yes, I still adore an indie bookstore, but the big stores have expanded the market.

I do worry about what Amazon is doing to brick and mortar stores. I like touching books before I buy them!