Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Read It and Weep

Hank: Its True Crime Tuesday. And I have a big fat True Crime for you.
Bookstores closing.

How many of your most wonder
ful and rewarding experiences came in bookstores? All your lovely books piled on a table, the anticipation of how many wouldn't be left by the time the signing was over! And how many times you'd see a new reader tuck your book into their shopping cart and take it home. You'd wonder--will they fall in love? Will they tell a friend?

(We won't talk about the people who chatted us up for fifteen
minutes, asked for our agent's name, and then DIDN'T buy a book. That's another blog for another day. )

And readers? How many wonderful new books could you simply not resist? How many
new authors did you meet at bookstores? How many lifelong friends did you make?

One of my very first signings was at the beautiful Borders in Braintree, Massachusetts. The manager is--well, was--Stacey Toon. S
he was marvelous. Caring. Really knew her stuff. And treated me like a real author.This photo was taken in April, 2007! (Hmmm. I still wear that jacket.) I loved this signing, and the many more that came afterwards. And I know it was life-changing.

But I won't be signing there anymore--and neither will you. That store is closing. And it's incredibly sad. Sad for me, sad for customers...and especially sad for the devoted employees. So I asked Stacey to tell us about it.

Reflections on my time as a bookseller
By S.E. Toon


I didn’t see it coming, not that our store became just another unit number of over two hundred stores shuttering their doors. Sure, we were a profitable store when others wallowed in the red during the recession, so yeah, I was a bit dumbfounded by the news. What took me more by surprise was the importance my bookstore had in my life and the lives of the regulars who frequented it.

I was confident that we would ride the storm of corporate restructure with nary a scratch. I was a veteran of downsizing, having three companies in my career go through the motions. Two companies did the bankruptcy mambo and one avoided having their dance ticket punched. The end result was always the same, me having to again redefine myself.

There was an unintentional cruelty to it this time though. The List was posted online for the world to see. We were not on the list. Huzzah! My team was elated and quickly worked at fluffing down the feathers of our skittish patrons. “It’s because of you that we still are here! “ It was all about the love. Because of the numbers, a product of our customer’s loyalty, we dodged a bullet. Gratitude re-energized the staff.

Then the hammer came down.

The landlord of every remaining unit were approached and asked to come to the table to renegotiate the lease. Twenty-eight refused, twenty-eight were slated to be closed. It was business and we were about to get struck with the business end of the stick.
What was I going to do? I was currently being paid 50% less than my last career job, barely enough to pay the bills (welcome to the world of retail). If something didn’t happen and quick I would see my mortgage, already a monkey on my back, slip quickly into foreclosure. I spent over six years of my life slaving for this company and for what, to be collateral damage of some real estate overlord’s tax write-off?

All those years wasted… or so I thought.

It would be so easy to hold a pity party my every waking hour if it wasn’t for my staff. Each had their own situations, many far more dire and urgent than mine. I am humbled in their presence not only by their coping mechanisms but how they continued to do their jobs unflinching. Damn, they make me proud.

Our fate hit the news. Customers arrived in droves, heads hung low; emotional husks approaching each and every one of my booksellers to pay their respects.
Each day that I made announcements to the shoppers it felt like a Twilight Zone episode where I was the lead character who for reasons unbeknownst to her was doomed to be the director of their own funeral. The wake is 9AM – 10PM, come as you are.

The patrons shared the same emotion we all felt, loss. At first it seemed rude and absurd that they would come up to us with, “I just feel horrible about this store closing.”

Each member of my staff fought back the response, ‘
You feel horrible!’ The customers after all were just losing a local haunt, we were losing our livelihoods. I pictured myself in a month or two homeless, galumphing in the rain while playing with a stick and contemplating the moral of Ferdinand the Bull. It was hard to be empathetic.

As they fumbled with their words, it became clear that their sadness wasn’t just self-serving. We had become a fixture in the community, more the spirit of a library than a retail store. We were a part of their lives, the good part. It was here they escaped the day to day grind for a cup of joe, a comfy chair, and a momentary escape into a world of intrigue, romance or heady meandering.

When I was young my mom told me “You can go anywhere between the covers of a book” That was in part an excuse for the family not going on any fancy, shmancy vacations, but as I lived my life no truer words have ever been said to me.

My regulars (or irregulars depending on the given day) took those words to heart as well. They would find a place in the store and prepared to be transported. I would recommend titles based on their likes, more a travel agent than a bookseller. Many would head to the registers to take their newfound destinations home.
We didn’t sell books, we sold dreams; some escapes, some aspirations, some meditations on or from this thing called life.

Our closing wouldn’t just be another empty storefront, a blight on the landscape of the American dream. It would be the removal of a part of the town square. Each customer (and I mean our customers not the myriad of bargain hunters who never frequented our store in the first place) shared their sadness in their own way while trying to keep a lid on their pent up anger. Then there was the silence, nothing more to say and they would leave to find new treasure in our now depleted stacks..

We cared. We made them feel welcome. We love books and were willing to share that love with them. We sold books and we were good at it.

It made no difference now. It was over. The weeks that would follow would just be a long stream of farewells and crowd control.

All my staff and I can do is what we do. My store is well into its second week of liquidation, its stock growing increasingly lean. Still, I can commune with my guests, perhaps pull out of the rubble a small gem to capture their imagination and for a few moments take them away from lower pay, higher prices and an undetermined future.

Perhaps they can find passion in a war torn land, rise out of poverty and abuse by their bootstraps or discover just how cellophane the human experience while contemplating the miracle of the opposable thumb.

Then, for as long as those pages turn, everything will be alright.

Stacey Elizabeth Toon is a soon to be ex-bookseller and the author of the YA novel The Pirates of Lobster Cove presently seeking representation. Friend Tales of Lobster Cove on Facebook or email at TalesofLobsterCove@comcast.net .

So, dear REDS: What can you say to Stacey--and your pals at bookstores? Are any in your neighborhood closing? Do you think that's a TRUE CRIME?


  1. I'm sorry for losing any bookstore, and I hope everybody can find a new job, but the problem with so many indie bookstores is they think (or hope) pricing shouldn't matter. How many Americans do you know who will pay 50% above what's down the street or online? Business is business. If there's greed involved, it's shoppers wanting a bargain.

  2. Thank you, Stacey, for your perspective on this ongoing travesty of bookstores being closed. Bookstores aren't just about books, as we all know. They are space where community happens. My niece and her family live in Braintree. I know how much they loved the community you created in your store.

    Best to you as you move forward, with your book and with all of your endeavors.

    And thanks, Hank, for introducing us to Stacey. My favorite line from your part of this post: "And treated me like a real author." So unassuming.

  3. Brenda, thank you!

    And Jack, that is so true. It's very difficult to pay full price when you know at an online place or big box store, it's half the price. What do you think the solution is?

  4. Would you change your buying habits if you knew it would help a store stay in business?

    Have you done that?

  5. Do you have an ereader? Has that changed your book-buying habits?

  6. If I lived close to Murder by the Book in Houston, I would never buy a book anyplace else, honestly. I had such a wonderful experience there (They treated me like a real author, to quote a famous source), and they offer so much MORE than books (the community that Brenda talks about), I would just think of that place whenever I wanted to read. I bought at least one book at every store that would have me for a signing, so yes, I tried to help. But I'm afraid authors aren't the only clientele you need to keep a store afloat. No E-reader for me, yet. I want to hold a book.

  7. We are so lucky in my town (Madison, CT) to have a fabulous indie bookstore, RJ Julia Booksellers. They know well the problem of folks coming in to browse and then going home to order what they found online. Yes the stuff is a little cheaper, but is it worth driving out a wonderful local store? i really try to ask myself that when I'm tempted...

    Yes, Hank, it's a true crime when bookstores vanish! Like you, I've had many wonderful events in bookstores and feel sad every time I hear about another door closing.

  8. I'm saddened to hear of this bookstore closing. What a shame.
    Thank you for introducing us to Stacey and letting us hear her insight. I wish her the best with her novel.
    I do have an e-reader, but my house is filled with books, and I can't part with them, and I'm still buying physical books, and that won't ever change. The e-reader is convenient on trips and in waiting rooms.
    I frequent several bookstores in my area, I love them all.
    I agree, Hank, bookstores closing is a true crime.
    But business is business, and we can't change that. I just saw my neighborhood Blockbuster go out of business; the supermarket next door has a redbox in it.
    We're living in a transitional time. It's sad to watch the demise ~ of bookstores, video/DVD stores, and now they're getting rid of soap operas!

  9. That Borders is less than a mile from me - we will truly miss it. It feels so mean, especially the way the news was dribbled out and people thought they were safe.

    I was stunned that they closed the downtown store, too.

    Makes us all appreciate the bookstores we still have. Places where people who read books can go, inhale books, and talk face to face with kindred spirits who love to read and love to write.

  10. Hank, thanks for introducing us to Stacey, and Stacey, thanks for sharing. Such a loss for you and your staff and your customers.

    I was one of the lucky ones--"my" Borders (Watters Creek, Allen, TX) didn't close (yet) but I read the list frantically.

    I don't know the answer to this. E-readers may be the future, and while I've downloaded some things from the Kindle store on my phone, I don't think the format can ever replace a "real" book for me. Nor does the instant gratification of the download come close to replacing the "third place" sense of community provided by a real bookstore.

    Maybe we could all commit to visiting (and buying from) our local bookstores on a regular basis.

    A drop in the bucket, yes. And yes, it would cost us a bit more. But so, so worth it.

  11. We lost our Borders in March. I couldn't even go in during liquidation without tearing up. We have one bookstore left on this side of the island (and one on the other). It's the only place I buy my books now and, yes, I know I'm paying more. But, it's worth it.

  12. I hit my Borders on Saturday--two English decorating magazines, one English newspaper, and (blush) a People magazine. All enjoyed immensely, as was the browsing.

    I do wish the coffee shop was better, though. Much prefer the Starbucks in the B&N which is my next-nearest bookstore. It's always full of people reading books and magazines, or writing, or talking, and the bookstore flows into it, unlike the coffee shop at the Borders which is in a corner of the basement. Some bad planning, there. I think the stores need to do everything possible to make themselves gathering-friendly.

  13. Stacey,
    You write so eloquently of the bookstore closing -- making it so real. I can't believe they closed the Braintree Borders and then opened one at Legacy Place next door in Dedham. I mean, is there corporate absence of business sense that is driving this whole thing? I have had wonderful experiences with individual Borders stores - but a bad experience with the chain. Which makes me believe all the smarts are in the stores selling the books.

    Jersey Jack, you make an excellent point. We all try to help the indies, but the amount of books we can each buy, isn't enough to find economic trends. As Kathleen notes, it's a transitional time. We just hope there's a transition to a model that can support bookstores!

  14. that was supposed to be "fight" economic trends

  15. Caitlyn HendersonMay 3, 2011 at 7:46 PM

    It's a very scary prospect for a book addict such as myself. Even scarier? The city on our Northern border is closing their library. Soon there won't be anywhere we can go to sink into book culture. I have an e-reader which has proven very handy during my medical treatments but nothing beats a physical book for me. Half of the books on my e-reader are electronic versions of the paper books I own and the others are books I'm waiting for them to be released in their paper format.

    As much as I love discovering books through on-line means such as Goodreads and Yahoo groups, there is something special about browsing through a real bookstore. Being able to touch the books, pick them up, see their covers and what about when someone else notices what you're holding and start rhapsodizes about what a wonderful read.

  16. Caitlyn, I SO agree. I like my ereader, but there is nothing like going to a bookstore or library. Funny, huh, that it's about more than the words on the page.

  17. AH, that was really me, above.

    Deb, interesting observation about the coffee shop location. A designer/psychologist could have some fun with that!

  18. Thank you for your kind words. Closing Chapters is in 5 installments, The first, Lip Service,was posted at femmesfatales.typepad.com/my_weblog

    Being a writer rather than a blogger this is new to me but here's a couple off-the-cuff comments on some of the generous posts so far:
    - retail book prices are high but it most bookstores their is a discount structure in place. I am always surprised when someone pays full retail for any book to be quite honest.
    - Everything I've read so far and the customers I interact with are testament to this, e-books aren't killing book sales, the economy is. E-book owners buys real books AND virtual ones. Fact is, many discover a new author on ebook and become a new fan MORE LIKLEY to buy a book off the shelf by the author in the future.
    - Brains on the floor, I say thank you for my entire staff but you can't run a company on a perfectly-worded sonnet either. IMHO (which never is when you use that abbreviation) is that there is a difference between selling intellectual properties and widgets. There is more nuance in the selling and the public can be fickle.
    - True Crime is all around us, its in the remaining bookstores where you can find shelter. Go there, buy something and feel safe (even if it is an illusion.

  19. its certainly a problem when just about any book can be bought online used for a buck or so plush shipping.. sad to see my local borders closing.. but the internet is cheaper and book prices brick and mortar are way to high. you know its bad when even the 50% off retail sale price is too expensive to justify buying any books until is hits 70%+ off... no way for a store to survive like that. sorry for the people who lost thier jobs.