Garrison Keillor commented that Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn., which he opened in 2006, "is sort of slowly making its way. I don't know. It's not making money. Nobody makes money with bookstores."
It's the blanket of "nobody" that stands independent bookselling hair on end. It is certainly difficult to make money selling books. Living in 90% of the world today, you'll find difficulties making money in most businesses that don't revolve around oil, weapons, or governmental bailouts.
This buys into the dangerous MYTH of the dying bookstore. Times are tough. Some great stores have closed their doors. Bookselling alone has brought few independent wealth. But to say that no one makes money on it, that we're non-profits without 501-c status rather than integral and innovative members of the business community- that's where we disagree. Most vociferously with the perpetuation of that myth that bookstores are a dead-end for business - the myth that big box stores and online warehouses would love to use as examples of us being quaint dinosaurs. The only way someone should mistake us for quaint dinosaurs is in hearing our roar combined with our impeccable customer service!
"I love bookstores. I love to hold books in my hand. And to give that up is painful. It's like if Minnesota passed a law against fishing, it wouldn't affect the food supply that much. You know, if we passed a law against guys going out in a boat with a rod and a reel and bait and fishing for sunfish and crappies, people would still eat, nobody would go hungry who hadn't before. But it'd be painful. It's a part of our culture."
This has the trademark mix of whimsy, locality and heartfelt nostalgia that keeps people tuning in to hear the news from Lake Wobegon, but I'm just not so sure how relevant it really is to books or bookselling.
Are the fish books and fishing bookselling? Or is fishing the act of reading? Are bookstores fish? I agree that losing bookstores would be painful, but, for me and many, many others, it would be more akin to losing a limb and a sensory perception than not being able to eat fresh pike. Also, why mention just the sunfish and crappies? A good book is at least a walleye or a bass or a northern pike one needs to wrestle with to pull it from depths to appreciate glimmering in the full light of day - its sleek muscle and brutality, it's deep coloration and streamlined design; it's ultimate fragility.
Books are communication, not just good reads. If the internet was a replacement, booksales and books published wouldn't be increasing. If electronic readers were acceptable substitutes, they wouldn't need to work so hard to replicate features like turning the page.
If bookstores are fishing then it would be a painful, detrimental loss. But it wouldn't be because of a law being passed, but rather a law not being passed to level the playing field of taxes (that's another blog post to come on this story). The real way we would lose that part of our culture would be for people to believe that first myth of the dying bookstore. Just as fishing is more than a hobby, bookselling is a passion and a lifestyle. If too many people decide that they would rather have frozen fishsticks or some other conglomeration of processed protein in stead of getting out on the lake, spending time with friends and family and meeting one's meal(or, to our vegan/vegetarian friends - rather have nothing but frozen entrees than fresh organic produce). If people start to think it's all just a hobby - that the man leaving Grand Marais at 5am every morning and coming back with food to sell at a restaurant, feed his family and sell a bit more; that the dedicated booksellers reading as many books as they can so that they can match other booklovers- other seekers of knowledge with -with the best books out there... that would be a painful loss.
But it's avoidable. First step is to ignore and fight that dangerous myth. Second is to think of where one is spending money and if they are really making purchases that will add value to their lives and communities. Click here for more hints and steps in that direction.
I'm sure people love Common Good Books, and while Keillor may not be making money, he is able to hire highly capable people to keep the store running. We hope that, in evaluating the state of Independent Booksellers, in the future he give more of a weighty pause that makes the questioner consider the question further... because the answer lies somewhere in that space between the concerned customer and the dedicated bookseller. Not in some abstract blanket statement.