Friday, December 22, 2006


From an article in the New York Times about yet another bookstore closing:

There are currently about 2,500 independent bookstores in the United States, not counting stores that deal only in used books, said Meg Smith, a spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association. In 1993 the number stood at about 4,700.

At this rate, which I actually suspect is still accelerating, the number of independent bookstores in another 14 years will be well below 1,000, maybe even less than half that.

Now let’s ask the next question. How many of these bookstores have a decent poetry section? And what do I mean by decent? That’s one of those questions like defining obscenity – you know it when you see it – but I think it tends to have a few obvious characteristics:

It’s not the furthest most back corner of the store.

It’s more than a single section of one book case.

Most importantly, a majority of the books are from small presses. University presses, by any definition, are not small presses.¹

And a sizeable majority of the books should be by living authors as well.

Beyond that, I think it becomes a question of taste, of which books as much as the mere presence of them.

So just how many of the 2,500 independent bookstores in the United States qualify as having a decent poetry section? Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee most obviously. It may be the only bookstore in the country that completely meets those four simple criteria.

City Lights in San Francisco certainly has a large selection, and it’s conceivable (tho I’d have to double check) that it fits the small press/living author criteria as well. But one could easily argue that the “poetry room” up the back stairwell – it used to be a storage area, I think – is about as far off the beaten path in that venue as you could find. I’ve never seen anyone up there, whenever I’ve been in the place, who had wandered into the poetry section by accident. Which pretty much kills the serendipity/seduction element of poetry, which is supposed to be one of the major arguments for an independent bookstore, rather than just buying your books from Amazon on the web.

I’m less certain that Open Books in Seattle fits the small press definition, tho it’s possible – it is one of the few bookstores in the country with a total dedication to poetry – and I haven’t been in Grolier’s in decades. Modern Times in San Francisco puts poetry reasonably up front, and always has a decent portion of small press materials, but it doesn’t have a lot of books, and it reflects the problem of what happens when you don’t have a lot – you become totally dependent on the interests of a single book buyer and his or her take on verse. That may have been pretty good at a store like Pegasus in Berkeley back in the day when Steve Benson ran the store, but people like Steve are as rare as good bookstores. I know that Bridge Street in DC does a brisk online/mail order business in contemporary poetry – strictly because Rod Smith is the book-keeper there – but I don’t know how much of this is available to walk-in traffic. Out here in the boonies west of Philadelphia, the Chester County Book Company is a large independent – equal in square footage to a Borders or B&N, and that’s not counting the Magnolia Café or the accompanying record store – with a sizeable selection of poetry, not tucked way in back next to the maps. But the poetry section focuses almost entirely on the trades & university presses. Which is fine if I’m looking for Elizabeth Bishop, but not if I’m looking for Elizabeth Willis. Actually, the Chester County Book Company once celebrated March as “National Poetry Month” and, when I asked why, the manager said bluntly, “No one will notice.”

So the only other store I can think of right now that comes close to fitting my definition of having a decent poetry section might be Moe’s in Berkeley, where it’s right in the center of the main floor, has a lot of small press materials & a focus on living authors. Andrew Schelling set that arrangement up originally, and tho he has long since departed they haven’t screwed it up since. You can even look up stock online. Pretty close to a miracle if you ask me.

I’m sure – or at least I hope – that I’ll get a lot of comments today from folks about other bookstores that fit my four criteria. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

I used to feel that authors who put links to Amazon on their websites for their own books were being somewhat traitorous to independent bookstores. After all, if poetry distribution were up to Amazon & the two big chains, we’d all be reading Garrison Keillor anthologies or swooning at the latest translation of Rilke. But the question really is which independent bookstores. I can’t direct readers to my books at Modern Times because it won’t have them. Woodland Pattern doesn’t sell books online & Open Books does so only on a token basis. Indeed, tho it has a lively enough website, targeted mostly at events, exhibitions and fundraising, I could only find one image on the web of the outside of Woodland Pattern at all, on Bob Arnold’s website, which I’ve put up at the top of this note. That’s Cid Corman on the left.

So my links for my own books go first to the publisher if it has any kind of decent page for the item, and, if not, then to SPD. I’m always happy to support independent bookstores. But, frankly, if they can’t meet those four simple criteria, supporting independents bookstores feels pretty hollow. If they were all to disappear, we would have to get over any lingering delusion that poetry and “the book industry” have anything other than an incidental relationship with one another. And that might even be healthy.


¹ Think about it. There are at least 4,000 books of poetry now being published each year in the U.S. Of those, maybe 100 are published by trade presses. Some of these are collected editions by “crossover” authors like Allen Ginsberg, but most are no different from any other small press scene. Maybe 300 more titles are published by university presses. That means that, at minimum, seven out of every eight books of poetry comes from a small press.

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