Some remarks about some things

notes, investigations, digressions galore

Ted Burke

Ted Burke
San Diego, California,
July 15
Bookseller, writer, musician
Bookseller, musician, writer and poet living and working in San Diego, California. His writing has appeared in the San Diego Reader, Kicks, San Diego Door, Roadwork, Revolt in Style,and City Works.His poems have been included in the anthologies Small Rain: 8 poets from San Diego (1996,DG Wills Books),Ocean Hiway: eight poets in San Diego (1981,Wild Mustard Press) , and is the author of many chapbooks, including Hand Grenade, Open Every Window,No One Home and City Times,limited editions published by his own Old House Press.


APRIL 7, 2009 12:10PM

What's killing bookstores are cheapskates and dead beats

Rate: 7 Flag
(Thanks to ktm for some choice editing advice-tb)

Ron Silliman kindly provides his readers with a frequent list of links to other blogs and online publications that he's found interesting, and part of his dutiful attention is dedicated to bringing us the unfolding stories involved in the demise of independent bookstores. Resilient as these venues are, they seem caught in an inevitable movement of cultural shift-- bookstores are no longer the community centers one would go to purchase books and in turn have purchase in the larger discussion that strengthens a democracy. On line purchases are just cheaper, and in the change of national habit , customers are willing to wait so they can recieve a discount. This is a tide that threatens to swamp the big stores too, with Borders and Barnes and Nobel struggling to keep their cash registers humming. Last week I walked into the downtown Borders in San Diego and wondered if I'd walked into an oversized living room; the cash registers were idle much of the time, but the store was full, seemingly peopled by freeloaders sitting in chairs with stacks of books piled at their feet. What was appearent was that very few of those books would be purchased and the books in turn would be dog eared, bent , battered and otherwise made less than pristine. The staff, in turn, seemed as though they could give a flat fuck about the state of the store; sections were out of order. Vain as I am, I wanted to yell at someone.

Charles Taylor published  published an essay in 2005 in The New York Times where he asks  when did bookstores  turn into “flophouses”. His set of choicely- phrased gripes concern the way in which huge chain stores like Barnes and Noble have created atmospheres that encourage the derelicts in the population to turn bookstores into living rooms, much to the disadvantage of browsers who’d like to find a book to read and, perchance, purchase. I understand Taylor’s misgivings about bookstores being turned into playpens for the lonely, the trendy and the socially inept, and I've seen every sin of self-absorption he's described and decried.

My principle beef is with those who treat the bookstore as if it were a library, a place to either sit and read from the shelf in stages, dog-earing and chafing the item beyond saleability (pages bent down, spines cracked, covers creased and curled), or for those researching whatever complex and vaguely outlined project they've set for themselves. This second example is especially loathsome, since these folks, students with no money more often than not, appear with their backpacks and spend some time in three or four sections, taking books here and there, and then settle in someplace, usually an aisle, sitting on the floor, books open and turned upside down, with the ersatz scholars copying whole paragraphs from texts they have no intention of buying.

I have found more than one person copying pages with their cell phone cameras, an interesting method of shop lifting. We considered banning cell phone use inside the store, but were convinced by the less soured staff that such devices were the sort of thing that had to be tolerated; whine as we might, we're not in the business of telling customers what they can't do. All the same, it grates , and it greys the hair.There is nothing more exasperating than the wounded-animal look these peculiar sorts give you when we remind them (really!) that they're in a bookstore, not a library. One girl who'd been feverishly copying passages from an expensive philosophy book from a pricey university publisher actually asked me this:

"You mean you don't want me to take notes?"
"No. These books are for sale..."

“For sale?”


“Just let me finish this one thing I started to write….” Her voice took on the squeaking whine of noisy plumbing.

“This isn’t a negotiation. Put your pen away. Do you want to buy this book?”

“Do you have it used?”


She was sitting in a graceless lotus position on the floor, holding the book open on her lapso that the binding continued to crack. I leaned over and took the book from her, closing it and smoothing the front and back covers with my hands. I only wish I had a snapshot of the clueless, uncomprehending expression she had on her face as her mouth gaped open and her eyes quite literally filmed over as if trying to grasp something as abstract as the idea that we were a store and needed to sell books. Sell books, not rent them, exchange them, lend them out, let you read them to a grimy pulp, photocopy them, borrow them or any other form of exchange that falls outside the boundary of a simple cash or credit card transaction.

Less attractive are the world travelers who have the money to take vacations in far flung corners and exotic niches of the globe, yet who are so miserly in their preparation that they won't purchase travel guides but will instead spend up to an hour in your store copying airline and hotel information from a current book onto index cards. There is an industry term for this sort of clientele. Here it is in the form of an inside joke. A cranky bookseller goes up to a young wannabe hipster who'd been lingering long and uselessly in the poetry section and say to him

"Young man, you remind me Jack Kerouac....”
The young poser's eyes widen at the apparent praise.
"Really," he says breathlessly.
"Yup," says the cranky bookseller,"you're both dead beats."

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Ouch that hurts! I've been guilty of this throughout my college years. I lived less than 1 block away from Cody's, Moe's, Half Priced Books, Shakespeare, and a comic book store, and I used to go browse the bookstores almost every night. Guilty as charged!
when i was a kid, it wasn't unusual to find books in the ladies bathroom at borders, so this is not new.

i'd say what's killing bookstores are the misanthropes who hate the people coming into their establishments. this is the way you guys wanted it, remember? we could be reading all the books in the library online right now where you wouldn't have to see us handling your babies. please direct your anger to the aap and the author's guild:
The crux of the problem is that dead beats and cheapskates outnumber real customers . It's analogous to people going into grocery stores and eating the food in the aisles and then leaving without paying. It's a business killer, and it's pathetic that so many folks who claim to love books and bookstores are rather blind to the fact that they're contributing to the demise of many of them.
I don't disagree with your antipathy to deadbeats, but blaming individual cheapskates for the demise of indy bookstores is like blaming global warming on individuals who litter.
I confess to ordering books - more for the convenience and selection than anything else. However, if I need to do research, I'll either use the library or buy the book. I agree that bookstores are not to be treated as untaxpayer funded libraries.
I'm not attacking individuals, I'm grousing against a whole class of people, the willfully cheap and dead-beating.
I still think there are more powerful forces at work which are demolishing indy bookstores, but I support your right to grouse about those willful deadbeats!
At book signings, I've had people tell me they Xeroxed a copy from the library the book. One person asked me to sign a stolen copy from their library. A close friend of mine, a famous reality show producer, said to me years ago not to go down this path, that books are a bad business model with no answer in sight. With that warning, I proceeded to plan to make my books that address this problem and tried to create books I hoped would be unique and have a tactile and and collecting quality (lush illustrations, unique packaging, gift value, etc.) so that a reader would want to own or give the book. I did this with the last book and the current book I'm working on. Not that it necessarily helps or that I think I'm right but just sharing my thoughts on the subject from a writer's point of view.

Good luck dealing with the problem on your end.
...and sorry for the grammatical errors. I'm dealing with business calls and writing with my other hand on another computer at the same time!
Cheap people generally bug me too, but on this I take a different view. I like it that people hang out and clutter bookstores--I only wish there were more people doing it.

I'd like to set up a bookstore/bar! I'd make profits from the booze, and only carry books of poetry! I'd invite all the cheapos to hang out, loaf, borrow, and steal--Yes! STEAL POETRY!
"The crux of the problem is that dead beats and cheapskates outnumber real customers ."

no, they don't. the real customers have gone online so that they don't have to deal with the hassle of shopping. the crux of the problem is that bookstores are not particularly needed anymore by anyone who has a computer.

so, you can acknowledge that your clientele has changed fundamentally, or you can come to the internet (your competitor) and complain about the people who do come to bookstores. that's what you have done. that's pretty odd, unless you also realize there's just a much bigger pool of people here than there are in your store.

"It's analogous to people going into grocery stores and eating the food in the aisles and then leaving without paying."

as my mother used to say to my sister and i when we fought over a new book... "are you worried she'll read the words off the pages?"

books are not cakes: you can consume them and still have them. would you care to make another analogy that makes sense?

and i say this as a person who does buy books periodically, but i won't charge for any content i create. everything i publish has a creative commons share-alike license so that people can copy it for free. i am tired of living in a world where the delivery mechanism is valued more than the content. what's so valuable about bookstores?

if i were you, i'd quit demonizing the only clientele i have and start charging a cover and serving beer.

. the real customers have gone online so that they don't have to deal with the hassle of shopping. the crux of the problem is that bookstores are not particularly needed anymore by anyone who has a computer.

The” real customers” still come to bookstores as well as buy online , and these are not the people I was talking about. I was addressing a very particular class of folks who will abuse the privilege of being in a bookstore by brutishly handling the books they read, damaging them, and then leaving the store without supporting the business they’ve just supported.That you shopping in a bookstore as “a hassle” tells me that you’re the sort of customer I’d rather not enter my store.

as my mother used to say to my sister and i when we fought over a new book... "are you worried she'll read the words off the pages?"

Neither your mother nor you sound as if you ever had to confront stacks of books piled haphazardly by careless browsers that are bent, tweaked, have pages turned down or ripped out, marked up, have coffee and food stains, torn dust jackets, and the like. Quaint and cute as her phrase is, it’s not a matter of reading “the words off the page.” Some one who opens a bookstore and spends a large amount of capital to stock their sections with books they believe both deserve shelf space and to cater to both the specific and the general reader finds themselves disgusted and disheartened when these books, the merchandise they offer for sale, winds up unsalable to the public and un-returnable to the distributor. The option remains to mark damaged books, but that in effect leaves the book seller in the position of selling his wares for the same price he paid for them. It would be another matter if a larger number of stack-hoarding free loaders actually bought some of the books they pore over, but not enough do that.

Books are not cakes: you can consume them and still have them. Would you care to make another analogy that makes sense?
The analogy makes perfect sense to other booksellers who've read this piece. I suspect you have little retail experience and haven't spent a career investing in a quality venue dedicated to books and the customers who love them. So far you're demonstrated little use for the book as anything other than a utility item, like a light bulb or a can opener; that's a shame.

New books are not cakes, yes, but those in grocery stores have a reasonable expectation to food items that haven’t been opened and eaten. Browsers interested in new best sellers have reasonable expectations of finding the new books we’d like them to buy to be in near pristine condition. It’s not a matter of someone pursuing a few pages to see if they like the prose or see if the subject matter interests them and then making a decision to buy or not; what I’m talking about are those who treat the books as if they owned them, who crack spines, copy whole paragraphs into note books, bend pages to keep their place while they go to the bathroom. In both the analogy and in real life, the respective goods are made unattractive and unsalable.

As for the rest, whether you charge for your content or not is resolutely irrelevant to the substance of my complaint.
Ted--you are right, of course, but you aren't very much fun. Plus, being right wont get your rent paid. Being pragmatic, however, will allow you to find a solution to the problem of a dwindling sale pool. B&N is going down like the big dinosaur that it is--you don't want to be like that.
I'm alot of fun, actually.
Ken, I think you get at something with the vivid description of the student trying to copy from the book and clueless to the idea that the books aren't simply there for use. How the bookstore in our age became a place to read and work. This seemed to take root in the '90s. I never saw it before that: comfy chairs, food served, all that. It seemed a marketing strategy that can have some unpleasant consequences. But as to browsing: I often simply wander the stacks, handling lots of books, because I believe in the value of browsing, which is what the bookstore provides that online doesn't: an opportunity to assess the physical book, to judge by table of contents, font, layout whether one wants to buy and own it, or whether it's best left as a 10-20 minute scan standing in an aisle.
Ted, with whom I am honored to have worked as a bookseller, has honed in on a key issue for bookstores, inventory shrinkage, with a biting and thoughtful analysis. In reading some of the comments, I am struck by how many seem to these eyes to be missing the point.

Although many independents have gone under due to the loss of customers due competition from the internet or large box stores, the ones that remain seem to be the ones less vulnerable to these competitors. By and large, they have loyal customers, excellent management, strong ties to the local community, highly-informed staff, and many intangibles that are not easily replicated by the internet or box stores. For the record, independent bookstores love people coming in to browse. In fact, most independents encourage staff to connect people with interesting books to browse, put shelf-talkers with staff recommends all over the place, and face-out numerous titles. We are all about the browsing! Those of you who come in to our bookstores to browse, we love you. When you buy some books, especially those we have recommended, we love you even more!

Ted is after some other targets: the intentional or unintentional biblioclasts and "library patrons." Being as this is the internet, I am hardly surprised that many will rush to the defense of the latter. We are not talking about the person who pops into the store to get a phone number out of the local Zagat. We are talking about somebody who plops down and starts taking extensive notes out of one or more books. Clearly such behavior is considered acceptable behavior in a library. It is also obvious that this violates the whole point of a bookstore. If you want extensive information out of a book, information or text that an author has gone out of their way to put between the covers, that a publisher has invested in printing, that a store has paid to put on their shelves, BUY THE BOOK. If you do not have the means, obtain the book from the library, borrow it from a friend, find the info you need on the internet, whatever.

Besides the violation of physical and intellectual property such behavior entails, it not infrequently leads to a damaged book. Biblioclasts represent a more substantive problem. When in handling a book, a person damages it, they should buy it. They rarely do. Some glance around and return the damaged, stained, written-in, or whatever book to the shelf. Some don't even seem to care. They just damage books and walk away. Those that think this is not a big problem for bookstores are deluded. The result of the damage is what in accounting is known as shrinkage, and shrinkage from damaged and stolen books makes a big dent in a thin-margin business like bookselling. Several stores have gone under as a result of shrinkage. Ted isn't focusing on a minor issue with respect to the survival of the indies; he's focusing on a big one.

His anecdotes and tone reflect much of the anger and frustration many booksellers feel. We love books, and we love being booksellers. The people to whom he directs his rage threaten both. Cheapskates aren't just people looking to save a few bucks; they are the people who can easily rationalize doing material harm to others if it will save them a few bucks. Deadbeats aren't people who like to browse for hours in bookstores. Ted and I are both members of that tribe. Deadbeats are the ones who frequently linger in bookstores without ever possessing the intent to purchase a damn thing. They just plop down wherever, impeding the movement of whomever, and read whatever, lots of whatever. The bookstore as flophouse is a bookstore killer because in the end, it drives a lot of paying customers away.

Ted also hones in on one of the chief causes of the transformation of bookstores -- the box stores. Of course, some of this cause and some symptom. Declining respect for bookstores in general, a general decline in civility (I know; every generation brings that claim out), and, I think, the privileging of our identities as consumers over and above our identities as citizens and fellow members of a community -- all play a complex role in producing this state of affairs. And what state of affairs am I talking about: the one where bookstores lose their special status and become just like any other retail establishment. That will be a sad day, and the people against who Ted rages are doing their level best to make sure that day will come.