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Independent publishers and bookstores: Healthier than you think?

July 8, 2010

Miami's independent bookstore, one of America's best.

The Huffington Post, despite its liberal bent, is not my favorite news source, but I do have to give the site props for its week-long series celebrating independent publishers, bookstores, and, in its final installment, books.

Before saying anything nice, let me get a few kicks in: I usually find items in (on?) HuffPo both thin and bloated — puffed up with too much attitude and not enough reporting. But then what can you expect from a news outfit that doesn’t pay most of its contributors and employs few if any copy editors?

Of course, exceptions can be found. HuffPo is a decent aggregator of news from organizations that do actual reporting, with copy editors and everything, and its lead news page is often worthwhile. So are the reports and commentaries from people you already know about, like Ariana Huffington herself.

In fact, HuffPo is a kind of bazaar or flea market: A few stalls of glittery new brand-name merchandise near the front, then a warehouse of knick-knacks, knock-offs and bric-a-brac extending into the dismal distance. If you have the time to rummage, you can find the occasional treasure amongst the junky bloggerhea.

That said, HuffPo did excellent work in its week-long independent publishing series, in honor, of course, of Independence Day.

Festivities started July 1, with “Bookstores We Love For Their Spirit of Independence”, which featured all of my favorite indie bookstores, including Miami’s Books & Books, Denver’s The Tattered Cover, Powell’s of Portland, Ore., and Manhattan’s Strand Book Store.

But it also highlighted stores I don’t know, like Zion Bookstore in Salt Lake City, with its unexpected selection of African-American literature. This reminds me of one of my fondest pipe dreams — a tour of America, organized around independent bookstores. Were there but world enough and time.

A few days later, readers supplied another selection of beloved independent bookstores, this time including SoHo’s McNally Jackson, the Grolier Poetry Bookshop of Cambridge, Jane Addams Bookshop of Champaigne, Ill., New Orleans’ Faulkner House Books, and Village Books of Bellingham, WA.

On July 2 and July 5, HuffPo featured independent publishing houses, including Melville House, Archipelago Books, Black Widow Press, New Directions (est. 1936, one of the oldest indie publishers), McSweeneys, Algonquin, Graywolf Press, and Copper Canyon Press–this last a tiny house without which I’m not sure American poetry could survive.

And finally, to the magic itself, the books. On July 4 (how appropriate!), HuffPo listed “9 Big Books From Small Publishers,”, leading, naturally enough, with Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press), last year’s surprise Pulitzer winner for fiction. Others: Shoplifting From American Apparel (Melville House), by Tao Lin; Muriel Burberry’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa); and The Summer Book (New York Review of Books Press), by Tove Janssan.

The series concludes with a list of readers’ favorites, featuring titles such as Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (Melville House); Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Abyss of Human Illusion (Coffee House Press); and the wonderfully titled Monkey See (ENC Press), by Walt Maguire.

All in all, it’s hard to imagine a better tribute to indie books and publishing– heartening exhibition that makes you think maybe books and bookstores constitute a salvageable enterprise. Kudos, HuffPo. This all inspires a new pipe dream: For a year, I’d like to read nothing but books published by small independents, purchased only at independent book stores. Maybe someday.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    July 8, 2010 1:13 pm

    As an editor at an indie publishing house, I say here, here! Sadly, in my area, Northern New England, very few indie bookstores are doing well; I think I can name only three or four in ME, NH, VT. that would actually be on that list. Buy local, people!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 8, 2010 3:06 pm

      Thanks, Amy. I think we can go so far as to say if you buy a book at Amazon or some other online retailer, it means you don’t really like books or care about their future. Literature, like farming, must be sustainable, and like farming, the small, local option is always better than the big corporate one. Always. What’s more, many independent bookstores compete more favorably with online retailers than you might imagine. No, you can’t buy a new book for $9.99, but you can reap some sweet savings if you know what you’re doing. Ask your local indie store if it has a discount or frequent buyer program.

  2. rachel permalink
    July 8, 2010 2:54 pm

    Yes let us celebrate these book stores, publishers and books themselves!

    I like your idea of a road trip based on indie bookstores. Let’s do it.

  3. Kris Montee permalink
    July 9, 2010 10:28 am

    You often find flowers where you expect weeds. Some of the best indie bookstores I’ve encountered are in northern Michigan. So put these gems on your tour, Chauncey:

    1. Saturn Books in Gaylord MI, run by Jill Miner. She has built a loyal and rabid following of book lovers (and buyers!) Does great events for visiting authors.

    2. McClean and Eakin in Petoskey. Lovely store in a great small-town atmosphere that specializes in kids books, regional authors and Hemingway. What every indie should aspire to be.

    3. The Cottage Bookshop in Glen Arbor. A log cabin charmer set in idyllic woods.

    4. Island Bookstore on Mackinac Island. You have to take the ferry to get there and there are only horse-drawn carriages on the island. (And lots of fudge stores). The store has been going strong for 35 years.

    Lots of others…they give me hope.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 9, 2010 11:10 am

      Thanks, Kris. Big famous stores, like Books & Books or Powell’s are great, but it’s the little, unheralded ones that give me the greatest hope for the future. I’ll add Michigan — the state hardest hit by the recession, remember — to my itinerary.

  4. John Karwacki permalink
    July 9, 2010 10:51 am

    I can get lost in musty old bookstores, perusing the chaos in search of creative redemption. Three favorites from my wanderings:
    1) The Book Escape on Light St. in Baltimore, the best thing to happen to Federal Hill since Fort McHenry
    2) Kaboom Books, just off Bourbon St in the French Quarter, I may have spent more time there that I recall
    3) Sundog Books in picturesque Seaside, Florida, check out Central Square Records upstairs for rare imports and the occasional acoustic jam
    Still looking forward to our trip to Books and Books, thanks Uncle Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 9, 2010 11:11 am

      Thanks for those suggestions. I will check out Book Escape next time I’m in B-more. As for B&B, we must make specific plans. Let’s check and see what writers are speaking this month. The store puts on the BEST author appearances.

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