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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Book Store Desert

To steal a phrase from one of my MFA classmates, I live in a bookstore desert. One would think that in a place like Springfield where there are nine library branches that there might also be a bookstore but there isn't. We have a new casino, but no bookstore. The Mass Mutual Center, but no bookstore!

Once upon a time, in a city long, long ago, there was an oasis in that desert: Johnson's Books. When my grandmother was young she would walk from her house in Winchester Square down to Main Street just to go to Johnson's so she could buy art supplies. That was in the late 1940's when she was a student at the High School of Commerce (where I now teach creative writing). Then, forty years later, when I was just a tot, I remember my parents taking me to Johnson's and plopping me down in the basement where they had a children's section and play area. They would go upstairs and shop for books while I played with the other children under the watchful eye of the children's bookseller.

I don't remember the exact date that Johnson's disappeared from downtown Springfield (WGBY's Gone But Not Forgotten tells me it was in 1998; I would have been a senior in high school), but I do remember feeling its loss keenly. Of course, by then there were bookstores in the Holyoke Mall. We had Waldenbooks and Borders, eventually a Barnes and Noble in the plaza that sprang up behind the mall. As long as I had a place to buy books, I didn't really think twice about it.

It wasn't until I self-published my first book in 2006 that I began to see the distinct difference between the indies and the big chain bookstores. Broadside in Northampton was the first store willing to carry that book (which was terrible by the way, but Bill still managed to sell it); Borders at the mall was the second. Even though it was a chain store, Borders operated very much like an indie. Each franchise manager had a great deal of freedom in event planning and they chose to support local authors as often as possible. Sometimes I wondered if that wasn't what contributed to their eventual demise.

Barnes and Noble, on the other hand, wanted (and still wants) nothing to do with self-published authors. They are willing to deal with indie authors as long as they stock their books through a warehouse service like Ingram Spark. Because they're more concerned with the bottom line than with discovering the next great writer, B&N will only carry a book if they can get a deep discount by buying wholesale. They also want the option to return unsold copies of the book and get some sort of return on their investment which is not something that indies do.

Having been on both sides of the fence-- as both indie author and now indie publisher- working with bookstores like Broadside, Blue Umbrella in Westfield, and Book Club Bookstore in South Windsor makes my life a whole lot sweeter. Jess Martin at Blue Umbrella was my greatest supporter when my first novel came out and again when I launched my independent press. She ordered as many copies of my book as possible and offered great consignment rates, knowing that I would likely reinvest a good deal of my profits back into the shop (she knew I couldn't walk out without buying at least one book for myself). Later when I launched Dark Ink Press she hosted book launches for my authors, talked up their books, and even made sure that there was media coverage for each and every book.

Independent bookstores have become the nexus of the communities in which they reside. Blue Umbrella was instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Westfield and on its coattails rode the burgeoning art community that has now made Westfield a destination. Broadside has been an anchor on Northampton's main drag since 1974. Johnson's, though defunct for many years, still carries with it the memories of an entire city. My mother still has a Johnson's bag tucked into the cabinet under her sink. Some of us (ahem) even collect Johnson's memorabilia. And, in a giant twist of fate that can only happen in the world of books. my business mentor is none other than...Mr. Charlie Johnson of Johnson's Books.

And with that supreme book nerd moment, I leave you to run out and patronize the nearest indie bookstore you can find.
Bon chance!