Monday, February 27, 2006

Niche book stores 

I've been to City Lights; in fact, whenever in San Francisco I try to make a stop there because they have such unusual books and its layout is so conducive to grabbing something and reading. Most bookstores are owned by granola-and-sandals types, who for the most part love books as much as I do and we can have a great time talking about them even after they realize I do not share their political views. So I find this story really sad:

A friend of mine took his young daughter to visit the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, explaining to her that the place is important because years ago it sold books no other store would - even, perhaps especially, books whose ideas many people found offensive. So, although my friend is no fan of Ward Churchill, the faux Indian and discredited professor who notoriously called 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns," he didn't really mind seeing piles of Churchill's books prominently displayed on a table as he walked in.

However, it did occur to him that perhaps the long-delayed English translation of Oriana Fallaci's new book, "The Force of Reason," might finally be available, and that because Fallaci's militant stance against Islamic militants offends so many people, a store committed to selling banned books would be the perfect place to buy it. So he asked a clerk if the new Fallaci book was in yet.

"No," snapped the clerk. "We don't carry books by fascists."

Let's be clear that it's perfectly within City Light's rights to choose not to carry any title, for any reason. It's a private company. And it might be worthwhile for them to take this stance to develop loyalty among its leftist portion of its customer base. Perhaps it makes business sense to turn yourself into a niche book store given the glut of Barnes and Noble and Borders in the 'burbs, or the presence of Amazon. I have even noticed that B&Ns in smaller cities like St. Cloud often end up being meeting places and a public space in which discussion of ideas and love of books can occur.

That said, I still find B&Ns and Borders stores antiseptic. I don't feel any different reading a book in the Starbucks of the Borders in Richfield -- a frequent stop after NARN broadcasts -- any different than reading a book in the food court of Mall of America. Yeah, a little less noisy, but it has all the contrived charm of your out-of-the-box Olive Garden.* I don't find myself reading for an hour in there ever. The same for the local B&N. And when I say this to people who work there and they ask "what can we do to make it that kind of place?" what can I say? Go buy a funky house somewhere and make each room a section?

I have often thought I would open a restaurant after I quit academia. #1 son and I love to cook; Mrs. S and Littlest teach cooking classes for community ed here. But I'm beginning to think a niche book store for the rest of us, those willing to stock both Ward Churchill and Oriana Fallaci, rocking chairs and a pot of "just coffee" -- I'm not even sure I'd serve decaf, let alone latte -- might be profitable. At least, it'd be a place I felt welcome to sit in.

Search my blog and you'll find this is a periodic rant of mine.

*-speaking of contrived charm and completely off-point: What the hell is it about the shouts of "hot bread" or "hot bagels" at Panera? All my friends and I can think of when we hear this is "Pannekoekken"! And if you're going to do it, sound like you really are excited.

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