For local bookstore owner Stu Hecht, the choice between his store and nearby book-selling chain stores Barnes & Noble and Borders literally comes down to a matter of taste.
“Here [in Connecticut], we are the meat between two pieces of white bread,” Hecht said.
How “white bread” corporate options squeeze local bookshops out of business, and what local owners can do to combat corporate homogenization, form the heart of a new documentary by Adjunct Assistant Professor of Film Studies Jacob Bricca ’93. The documentary, “Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore,” played March 6 at the Goldsmith Family Cinema. Following the screening, Bricca joined a panel of two local book sellers to discuss the sobering content of his film and the future of the independent bookstore in a market that is increasingly ruled by large corporations.
According to Bricca’s film, over half of the independently owned bookstores in the United States closed between 1993 and 2003. Those that remain in operation fight a constant struggle to cultivate and maintain a loyal clientele. Hecht stressed this need for community cooperation when discussing the future of his own bookstore, The Book Vault, in Wallingford, CT.
“We are there for the community, and we hope the community understands and [is] there for us,” Hecht said.
“Indies Under Fire” interweaves the stories of three California bookstores, each facing the challenges of competing with the local Borders. In Santa Cruz, local supporters of Bookshop Santa Cruz stage protests outside the newly opened Borders, sarcastically celebrating its arrival as yet another milestone in the history of “the United States of Generica.” Bricca wryly contrasts the cozy familiarity of Bookshop Santa Cruz with the sterile, sparsely attended Borders ribbon-cutting ceremony.
In another story, loyal patrons of Capitola Book Café fight to keep their local town board from granting Borders permission to open near their beloved bookstore. A tense town board meeting, pitting impassioned locals against Borders representative Joe Tosney, ends with a surprise victory for local supporters when their request to deny Borders permission is granted.
This scene, arguably the centerpiece of the film, succinctly puts forth the differing views on the role and place of bookstores. Supporters praise their locally owned bookstore as not just another commercial enterprise, but a place for townspeople to gather and form community bonds. These patrons also point out that local bookstores are often willing to publish manuscripts that larger stores deem un-marketable or too controversial.
“You sell books because it’s necessary,” Hecht said after the screening. “We are there to serve our community.”
Tosney, the Borders representative, characterizes the local protestors as an extreme minority standing in the way of consumer choice and commercial success. America has fought wars to protect the populace’s freedom to choose, Tosney argues. Why shouldn’t Capitola citizens have the opportunity to choose whether they wish to shop at Borders or their local bookshop?
Bricca took issue with this logic after the screening, saying that large chains like Borders can afford to lose money on some stores because their overall profits make up the difference. For single, locally owned stores, the effect of a Borders or equivalent franchise on their profitability can ultimately prove fatal. Because of this, large chains and smaller stores differ in how they perceive their function within the community.
“For Borders people, the stores are there because the customers are there,” Bricca said. “[For independent booksellers, the goal becomes] developing a community to be served.”
Thomas Talbot ’91, manager of Crawford-Doyle Booksellers in New York City, unquestioningly accepted the premise of competition as apart of any business venture.
“It’s a commercial enterprise,” Talbot said. “I think a certain amount of creative destruction is good.”
However, Talbot took a more critical stance toward Tosney’s assertion that American soldiers have historically fought wars for freedom of consumer choice.
“Apparently we fought the Vietnam war so we could have choice,” Talbot said with a smile. “I always wondered.”
Both Bookshop Santa Cruz and Capitola Book Café remain in operation. The same cannot be said for Printer’s Inc. in Palo Alto, whose slow decline makes up the final narrative in “Indies Under Fire.” A local landmark that saw its business slowly eaten away by the local chain-store, Printer’s Inc. found brief salvation in 1999 when store accountant Matthew Dugan purchased it from its longtime owners.
In a particularly poignant shot, a jubilant Dugan takes down the “For Sale” sign hanging in the outside window, rips it in half, and places the “Sale” portion back in the window to attract new customers. This merriment proved short-lived, however, as Printer’s Inc. closed its doors for good just two years later.
For Bricca, a Palo Alto native, the slow decline of Printer’s Inc. provided the catalyst for the production of “Indies Under Fire.” The subject was a personal one. Bricca grew up around the aisles of Printer’s Inc, and his father knew one of the former co-owners, Susan MacDonald. Though he worked on the film on-and-off for over six years, the central question of why this was happening finally drove him to finish the project.
“This seemed impossible to me, and I wanted to know why,” Bricca said.
The film screening and discussion, sponsored by Friends of the Wesleyan Library with additional support from the Center for Film Studies, did not just consist of dire predictions. Both local owners expressed cautious optimism for the local bookstore, as long as owners prove willing to adapt and serve their clientele.
Talbot stressed the importance of customer service and employee morale in the overall shopping experience, adding that his employees seem to thrive when compared to workers he has observed at larger chain stores
“Barnes and Noble people in New York City seem to be a pretty demoralized bunch,” Talbot said.
In an effort to better serve his customers, Hecht talked about a survey he gave to his store’s clientele, asking what they would like to see at his store. While he admits that requests like the installation of a coffee bar are not financially feasible, Hecht says that he is working to improve what customers said was a somewhat limited inventory.
“That’s the key to understanding why indies are closing,” Hecht said. “They don’t want to change.”
Audience members said they were impressed by both the quality of the documentary and the breadth of opinion expressed in the panel.
“I thought [the film] was great and the selection of the panel was perfect,” said Agnes Pak ’07, adding that both the film and panel were “well-rounded presentations.”
Others walked away with their opinions somewhat changed.
“I think that [Bricca] made a very good case to stay local,” said Jeni Morrison ’07. “He really conveyed a sense of community pride. I’ve often wondered about [the power of] community buying decisions. It helped me.