Saturday, January 06, 2007


For much the same reason why I can write an article on the half dozen major poets who died in 2006, but none for those who were born this same year, newspapers routinely give us the Death of a Bookstore article, but very seldom announce startups of independent books. There were, however, at least 94 bookstores that were created in the United States in the past year, according to Bookweb.Org, the website of the American Booksellers’ Association (ABA). Click on that link to see who and where they are.

These are bookstores that started and joined the ABA in 2006. There are almost certainly others as well. A few of these have taken storied names – Sanddollar, Shakespeare and Company – and at least one ersatz storied name, Shop Around the Corner, but more reflect the personal nature that an independent bookstore often manifests – My Father’s Books is my favorite.

These 94 bookstores will not reverse the trend that has seen the ABA’s membership decline from a high of 4,700 in 1993 to its current figure of around 2,500, but they do slow it down somewhat. Without 94 new bookshops last year, 90 in 2005, the ABA’s annual average decline of 169 stores would be more in the 260 to 270 range and America would be wiped clean of independent bookstores within a decade. That’s a sobering thought.

I have no idea how many – if any – of these stores meet my four simple criteria for maintaining a decent poetry section –

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.

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

But wherever there’s life there’s hope.

It’s worth noting that just nine of the newbies are located in cities large enough to have a major league sports team of some kind (I’m not including Syracuse or Las Vegas, in spite of the recruiting practices of their college teams). One in Brooklyn, none in Manhattan, San Francisco the only city to have two. The only Philadelphia addition is in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Ninety percent of the new stores are located outside major city centers, either in second-tier or edge cities (Hello, Riverside!) or even further out into the vast American sprawl.

Suburban bookshops have different profiles than those of city centers, in good part because they depend on a more localized clientele – city centers not only have immediate residents in higher density, but also the suburbanites who come into town each day. There is a powerful psychological bias that says its easier to go into town than it is out into the ‘burbs – even out here in the boonies, people tend to focus their routines around an immediate radius of their homes & whatever lies between them and downtown Philly. My friends in Philadelphia act as if we live out in Amish country. Likewise in the Bay Area, event planners have known for decades that it is far easier to get people from the East Bay or Marin to come to San Francisco for something, but almost impossible to do the reverse.

What are the chances that a suburban bookstore would meet my four criteria for a decent poetry selection? Pretty close to none, tho Chester County Book Company in West Chester, PA, fails only because of its lack of small press volumes. It would be nice to think that stores that take on names of fabled venues that had a lot of poetry – Sanddollar in Albany, California was basically a poetry only shop, an outgrowth of the original Serendipity Bookstore in Berkeley that also gave rise to Small Press Distribution, which folded when its owners got involved with the start up of Black Oak Books¹ – or which have names like Literary Life or Raven, would do so. But I know that the odds are long.

Still, without these, the inevitability that the United States would be down to two major retail chains and their brand extensions (Waldens, Dalton’s, Borders Express) wouldn’t be something to worry about ten years from now. It would be a present reality. So here’s to the newbies. May some of them survive, and may a few even thrive.


¹ The current Serendipity in Berkeley, located in an old wine shop on University, represents only one aspect, rare books, of the original operation, which got started shortly after the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965 when Peter Howard & Jack Shoemaker took over the stock of the Unicorn Bookshop in Santa Barbara.


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