08 October 2006

indie bookstores strike back?

An interesting article over at Wired argues independent bookstores are surviving--and possibly thriving--by creating the kinds of reader-centered spaces that the internet and chain stores can't offer:

...even as 200 to 300 independent bookstores close a year, the number of independent book stores opening is creeping up.

"For a long time, from 1992 to 2002, you literally could count on two hands the number of openings," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. "In the last three years there are 60, 70, 80 stores opening" each year, he said.

That's welcome news for an association that's watched its membership plummet from 4,000 to about 1,800 since the early 1990s.

"There are a lot of ways to make money in the business," said [Adam] Brent, whose father, Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent, closed the city's most famous bookstore after a half century in 1996.

Gary Kleiman, who owns BookBeat in the northern California community of Fairfax, decided the way to do it was to get rid of the clutter and make his store a gathering place.

"We had 10,000 or 13,000 books in the store," said Kleiman. "Now we have maybe 1,500." Last fall, Kleiman gave all but a handful of his used books to charity. Then he tore down shelves and in their place put tables and chairs and a small stage for live performances. He started offering free wireless internet access. And to help convince people to take advantage of it all he got a beer and wine license.

As for the books, most of the ones left are new and they're confined to the perimeter walls. While he's selling about the same number of books as he used to, new books are selling better. And his store has a lot more customers -- eating, drinking and listening to music -- than he did before. About 60 percent of the store's profits come from the cafe.

Kleiman's drastic move after six years of business is in large part the result two things he came to understand about the internet.

The first was that there were just too many used books online and they were just too cheap -- far cheaper than he could afford to sell them.

The second was that for all the talk about the speed of ordering books online, he could be faster. "I can order today and they will be here tomorrow," he said -- one reason customers choose him instead of the internet.

Some bookstores have survived by giving their customers what they say chain stores often do not: Employees who know what they're talking about.

"You can discuss books with us. We are all readers," said Arlene Lynes, who opened Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Illinois, in 2005. "To me, that's what's bringing people back."

Powells City of Books here in Portland is one of the best reader-centered spaces in the world, and also easily one of the best places to find and buy books online. Is this merely an anomaly? What *is* the reality (and thus the future) of indie bookstores anyhoo?

Order as difference/fixed as random

re: literary value and innovation, some idea encounters i’ve enjoyed of late, from odd sources:

----first line in an article in a yoga magazine about a musician who specializes in sacred music (paraphrased): a true artist knows how to blend the conventional form of his work with the innovation.

----an essay from 1995 (yep, that’s me, about 10 years behind the times...you’ve all probably heard of this before) by greg lynn that uses william and gregory bateson’s systems theories to discuss innovation in architecture:

Issue 1, 1995

The Renewed Novelty of Symmetry [1]
Greg Lynn

and the following is me working through this in my head: among other things, lynn conducts a vigorous examination of newness itself (newness by definition involves difference; in gregory bateson’s words, “difference that makes a difference”) and suggests that we think of novelty (innovation) as being similar to evolutionary development (this is where william comes in), in which difference occurs in increments that allow previous conventions (symmetry, for lynn) to reorganize in recognizable ways. (merriam-webster’s *fourth* definition of “symmetry” is “the property of remaining invariant under certain changes.”) that is, a building might contain innovative design traits (novelties), but in the end it’s still a building (generally similar to other buildings). thus monkeys did not mutate suddenly into palm trees. and, innovation spurs reorganization of convention (monkeys adapt to walking upright, which brings its own set of what will next become conventions), rather than the other way around. or, reorganization does not spur innovation (some rogue monkey cannot insist his brothers walk upright). lynn finds the two design possibilities, novelty and symmetry, to be symbiotic, if you will.

i could quote any section of his essay, but here’s one taste useful to me:

In this economy of order and difference, novelty, rather than being some extrinsic effect, can be conceived as the catalyst of new and unforeseeable organizations that proceed from the interaction between freely differentiating systems and their incorporation and exploitation of external constraints. Novelty and order are related in an autocatalytic rather than binary manner as they are simultaneously initiated from a constellation of viscissitudes [3]. This regime of dynamical organizations should not be understood as either Neo-Platonist or Neo-Darwinist as they are neither reducible to merely external nor merely internal constraints. It is the resistance to both fixed types and random mutation that makes flexible, adaptable, emergent and generative systems so provocative at this time.

i guess the yoga magazine writer is saying something similar (KINDA). what concerns me now is “the resistance to both fixed types and random mutation.” i would suppose that literarily-speaking, no innovation will be random (from ME and Greek “run impetuously”), since it will emerge out of a directed (always already) culture. chaotic, perhaps (productive of patterns that emerge from that which appears to be disorder), but not undirected. social forces are at work (huge duh). perhaps what poststructuralists would say to lynn would be that the random is already fixed in some ways.

so, maybe the random and the fixed are actually the same thing?

is this position of any interest to artists who might previously have said that they wish to fall on the random side of things? or does it kill innovation dead?