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Saving Bookstores: Desperate Indie Measures

April 12, 2012 Bookstores, Writing 2 Comments

The second Thursday of every month, Beyond the Margins teams up with compatriot literary blog Writer Unboxed and #IndieThursday to promote the value of independent bookstores and the struggles they face. Buy a book from an indie today!

By Nichole Bernier

I read with interest yesterday — the same day the Dept of Justice announced a settlement certain to lower the price of e-books, further insult to bookstore injury — that Saks Fifth Avenue has teamed up with Rizzoli bookstore. The boutique nook is part of its new “shops-within-a-shop” rehab of Saks’ ninth floor.

The highly stylized showroom is gorgeously spare, and will stock books on topics like fashion and design. It looks like the sort of space where Calvin Klein might perch on a sofa to read, or to mull which model he should feature against which bookshelf in his next ad campaign.

I’m don’t mean to be flippant. Just about anyplace offering new shelf space is a good thing in my book. But this reminds me of the many hoops booksellers are jumping through these days to survive. If book are being displayed in Saks this stylishly, it suggests they’re beginning to achieve a new kind of status — not necessarily higher or lower, but somewhere on that rarified plane that’s meant as a compliment but also implies, This isn’t a necessity for anyone, this is for the collector. This is for people who care about paper. Vinyl people, with liner notes.

Opus, at Politics & Prose

It’s a bit like a museum gift shop. But really, it’s another face of the same innovation-slash-desperation that led Borders to hug Build-A-Bear, and led to the installation of print-on-demand machines at Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store and Washington D.C.’s Politics & Prose, and even the colorful girls’ rain boots and umbrellas filling the window space at my local indie, branching out with much more non-book merchandise since it was bought last year. (Which I appreciate, because it makes one-stop gift shopping that much easier — book plus tchotchke, done.)

What’s interesting about these new mashups is that nearly anything goes. Everyone is seeking whatever eclectic formula might hit that sweet-spot combo to succeed in keeping their bookstore in the black. Personally, I’ve long thought someone should be on the bookstore-laundromat and the bookshop-spa combinations. They could be the next generation of the bookstore-café, a brilliant mix to which I owe much.

When my family was relocated from Boston to Washington D.C. in 2004, I found a second home in the upper Northwest independent bookstore Politics & Prose. It was not far from our children’s preschool, and I’d spend mornings working on my magazine assignments in the basement cafe, trying to resist cracking open some new novel I’d bought upstairs.

It was there, furtively, that I started my own novel. I wasn’t supposed to be writing fiction. I’d be on deadline for some magazine article, with never enough babysitting hours. But sitting in that café, jazzed on caffeine and the psychic weight of all those books overhead, I was drawn to express something that had been haunting my imagination for some time: Two families, struggling and healing in the anxious year following the September 11th terrorist attacks. At that time I was somewhat adrift, still affected by the loss of a friend who’d been on Flight 11, and enormously pregnant with my third child in a city where we didn’t have family or close friends. It was another kind of uncertainty to be finding my bearings as a writer of fiction. Everything felt tenuous.

Bookstores have always been a way I connect to a community, and the hours spent there were some of my favorite times during our few years in Washington. Mornings passed in a blur creating my fictional families, and some evenings I’d slip away from my own family to attend author events at the store. In the rows of book-loving strangers in my adopted city, I felt as if I were among my people.

I’m not sure that’s as likely to happen in the Saks Rizzoli, but that’s okay. People who find books inspiring need places to be around them, and to be around other people who want to be around them. It doesn’t much matter whether there are washing machines spinning in the aisles or teddy bears waving from the end caps.

The cost of e-books might very well change everything eventually, and create a community of folks tapping their spineless screens in Starbucks. That could become the next generation of people who like to be around people liking books. But even teddy knows it’s not the same damn thing.


Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Julie Wu Julie Wu says:

    Lovely post, Nichole! Every waiting room, or room where some people wait for others, should have books for sale. I’d love to try out a sofa by curling up with a book on it. And why movie theaters don’t sell the books their movies are based on is anybody’s guess.

  2. [...] Saving Bookstores: Desperate Indie Measures – “Everyone is seeking whatever eclectic formula might hit that sweet-spot combo to [...]

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Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier
Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D (Crown/Random House, June 2012), which was a finalist for the 2012 New England Independent Booksellers Association fiction award. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, Nichole was previously on staff as an editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She received her master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she received the school's annual award for long-form literary journalism, and has written for publications including Psychology Today, Elle, Boston Magazine, Salon, The Millions, and Post Road Literary Magazine. Nichole lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children, and can be found online at and on Twitter @nicholebernier. Read Full