Monday, January 19, 2009

The Few, The Proud, The Unemployed

Well, the other shoe dropped last night. As of March 31st, 2009, the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops will be closing. Among a crowd of almost all of their employees the announcement was made that the current climate is finally too much for Milwaukee's oldest and easily best-loved family-owned bookstore chain.

The Iron Horse of Independent Book Selling

I could say that I'm still processing the information, but that's not true. One thing I pride myself on is my ability to ingest and compartmentalize bad news like nobody's business. I've had enough practice in my twenty-seven years that this is old hat. In fact, this isn't even the first time I've been in a closing bookstore. Before coming aboard at Schwartz, I closed out a Barnes & Noble store, but I must say that this is different. While there were some coworkers at B&N who I enjoyed spending time with, my crew at the Downer Avenue Schwartz has been, to a person, the finest staff ever assembled for the purpose of book selling.

I have shared passion and excitement with each of them, but also worry and doubt. This group is not a collection of retail workers who happened to land a job in a book shop. We are intelligent readers (and in most cases writers) who honestly sought out the independence and alternative nature that this company has been known for since its inception. Some of us even started a book blog in an effort to increase that sense of community beyond the walls of our store. If you've never been, please go be. The Inside Flap.

What does it mean when the closing of a family-owned company, eighty plus years old, is met with acceptance? With words like 'inevitable', 'foreseen', and 'expected'? To my mind, it's just a fulfillment of the harsh reality that convenience trumps principle most often in this world. When you can cruise for your books, and you have no stake in community, why wouldn't you?

Here's my last-ditch effort on behalf of the myth of independent bricks and mortar. Given the choice, do you want to be an individual? Do you want to feel a sense of exploration and validation where you find your entertainment? Do you want to be able to carry on a five minute conversation that doesn't include stating your 'customer loyalty' number? Don't you want to use those minutes of your day hearing why a book is good rather than shuffling up to a register with one of the same twenty books that people all over the country are shuffling up to registers with? Do you realize that your independent booksellers are in most cases geniuses? These are people with deep convictions borne of extreme familiarity and a broad range of knowledge. These are people who care that their fellow thinking human beings have new synapses fire off in recognition of previously unheard ideas. These are people who can't wait to tell you about some guy who lives in Brazil writing words that speak to universal questions of the self. People who can recommend to you a poet beyond the canon of high school and college who deserves recognition that will never come in a large enough scale. They are not algorithms on a web page parroting best-seller lists. They are not wage slaves pushing the company's pet moneymakers or loss leaders.

But then again, the prices on Amazon are so cheap. Why, you can save six whole dollars on that twenty dollar book. All it costs in return is the erosion of individuality and the closing of four bookstores (today; more to come) filled with a resource that you don't miss until it's gone.

So, there's no way you can stop this. There's no wand to wave and keep my bookshop open. What there is, however, is the choice (losing substance daily) to support the worthwhile endeavor of community and dialogue. I'd ask that every time you see a book for sale online, you question why the reviewer doesn't have a link to BookSense (a collection of independent booksellers in America). When an author says "You can get my book on Amazon.", ask them where else you can get it. Ask them if they plan on going on a book tour sponsored by Amazon. Ask them what other books their latest is bundled with on a website that tracks sales but not content or style.

What will I do now? Well, I hear piracy in back en vogue, and I have always wanted to replace my left hand with a hook. If retail can be escaped after an adult life work history of eight years of uninterrupted book selling, then I'll claw my way to something else (hook hand or not). I know I won't be going back to The Evil Empire (that's the retail outlet based out of NY that's corporate with a capital B&N). I've been spoiled by the ease and humanity of Schwartz, and can't go back to being a cog. I can write, but writing doesn't pay bills at this point. For me, I see a stopgap sweeping floors in a warehouse. Don't feel bad. It's honest work, and I'm not a careerist who needs to be defined by his work. There is an attractive aspect to leaving work on the job and keeping my passions at home, pure and joyous. This is the economy we've been left by our benevolent dictator, and I can survive it. That said, if any publishing types are reading this and want to pay me a ridiculous amount of money to pontificate, I still have seven minutes left on my prepaid cell phone. Hit me up.

I must thank Carol Grossmeyer, owner and driving spirit of the shops for her tireless dedication to the ideal and the process of book selling. My hat is off to her for continuing the stewardship of a dream embodied by her late husband David and his father before him. Eighty years of struggle ensures that this company sets the standard for all others looking to swim against the tide. If you are looking for an example to follow, look no further.

Let's end for now with a list of the finest booksellers I know. All of the names on this list are diamonds waiting to be set in your rings, CEOs.

Doug James
Joe Lisberg
Conrad Silverberg
Stacie Williams
Carl Hoffman
Jay Johnson
Sarah Marine
Jordan Gower
Bayard Godsave
Myra Poe
Drew Blanchard

I remain Justin Riley, book lover.

The Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue, when it was still a game and money hadn't made it a business. Or the 1927 New York Yankees (aka Murderer's Row). It's one of those two.

(Edited to add:)

Bookselling was and is for me a cultural and political expression, an expression of progressive change, of challenge to oppressive authority, of a search for a community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world. The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community.

-A. David Schwartz (July 15, 1938 - June 7, 2004)


jordan said...

"the few" the proud the unemployed - this is becoming less true by the hour.

i'm touched buddy, and once more i'm realizing how much i enjoy every word you write. one day i hope to see you turn into a sort of Kilgore Trout figure, with hundreds of books i can enjoy, though no one may know about them. (minus the skankier aspects of Mr Trout, you're a family man after all.)

it's been fun

Justin Riley said...

Whether it's scrawled on the backs of cocktail napkins, or etched into my cubicle walls, I'll never stop writing.

As for 'hundreds of books', are we talking metric hundreds?

StacieMichelle said...

You said it best.

StacieMichelle said...

Oddly enough, did you check out Warren Ellis' post from an hour ago? He says that statistically, Jan. 19th is the grimmest, most hopeless day of the year.

carl hoffman said...

Pearls of wisdom, brother. My sense of community has grown exponentially since I began working with the unmatchable folks at this store. As a man once said, "Keep hope alive".

Justin Riley said...

Stacie - Warren Ellis is correct, as is usually the case.

Carl - Community is only as good as the people in it. Which makes this place a community without equal.

StacieMichelle said...

Justin, I read this post out loud to Tony. He said you're a really good writer, so I went on to read a few other of your recent posts. He's a new fan.

Also, while I didn't do this earlier, when reading aloud, I got all sorts of choked up and shed some tears. Then I read aloud the comments and the combination Carl/Justin banter made me cry some more.

Good God.

Justin Riley said...

As long as I can make girls cry, I'll know I've still got it.

Jack Pendarvis said...

You guys always go out of your way to be so kind and supportive. I'm very sad to hear the news. Thanks for all you've done for me and please tell everyone I said so. Good luck. I'll be checking your blog to see how you're doing.

Justin Riley said...

Mr. Pendarvis - I'm once again reminded what class you've got underneath all of that funny.

Selling your books has never seemed like work, and for that and the supportive words, I thank you.