Now that I’ve taken several walks past the hollowed-out shell of Cody’s on Telegraph, the fact that what was once great bookstore is no more has set in. It took a while for me to accept it, and I’m not the only one to react to Cody’s closure with disbelief. Throughout the Bay, people scrambled to find reasons why Cody’s shut down: The local news and entertainment zine, the East Bay Express, did a cover story on it; other local papers (and even The New York Times) ran articles trying to figure it out. In the Berkeley City Council, the news even prompted mayor Tom Bates to put together a plan to revitalize Telegraph Avenue.
Losing Cody’s flagship store was a major blow, but at least booklovers could console themselves with the knoewledge that Cody’s still had two more stores in the Bay Area, and neither planned to go anywhere soon. Or did they? Francis Dinkelspiel’s observations on her blog coincide with the thoughts I had after visiting Cody’s on Fourth Street a week ago; if we can compare the health of bookstores to that of human beaings, then Cody’s on Fourth Street is a bedridden, sputtering, coughing old man. After seeing it, I must seriously wonder if Cody’s plans to consolidate operations in their San Francisco branch, a branch that we were formerly led to believe was a beachhead into new and exciting territory.
Unfortunately, the loss of Cody’s is not an isolated incident. Major SF indie bookstore A Clean, Well Lighted Place For Books has also shut down. Diesel, one of my local bookstores in Oakland, has lost half its space. Other local stores (so I’ve heard) are facing difficulties.
All this has taken a toll on me, the book shopper. Whereas I once aimlessly browsed through local bookstores thinking of nothing other than a new book, I now keep an eye out for warning signs, wondering which one will be the next to fall.
All of this is made worse by the fact that the Bay Area is consistently ranked as one of the most literate metropolitan areas in the country. In fact, according to one survey, no other city in America has more bookstores per capita than San Francisco. One might say that all these bookstores make for a very competitive environment, so it’s only natural for some stores to close. But I find it hard to believe that competition from other local stores put Cody’s out of business. Frankly, if Cody’s and A Clean, Well Lighted Place can’t make it here where exactly can they make it?
This information is difficult to square with some other information, namely the fact that American publishers are pumping out more books than ever, close to 200,000 new titles per year. Where, exactly, are these titles being bought? Not at Cody’s.
One explanation is that Amazon and other online retailers have expanded their share of the bookselling pie. The problem with this explanation is that although Amazon et al. have greater market share, the overall size of the pie has not changed much. Americans may be buying more books online, but they are not buying more books.
In light of the facts that book buying in this country remains flat year after year and that the Bay Area is now a tough market to make a profit selling books, I must wonder if our vast yearly book output is sustainable.
Whether or not it is, I have a hard time understanding why our publishers publish so many titles. Do we really need all these memoirs that have suddenly saturated the marketplace, memoirs on everyone from twentysomethings to athletes to aging feminists to, apparently, every single retired member of the Bush Administration? Politics, too, has become a hot topic, and now we are packed to the gills with books that expose the villany behind an extremely wide array of prominent politicians and pundits. "Why I Hate ____" is suddenly a very popular title–well, at least a popular title to publish. Fiction is certainly not an exception to this trend-based publishing–now when a certain novel becomes successful, you can be confident that next season there will be plenty of knock-offs vying for your money. And, of course, these are the self-published books from places like iUniverse. These are just sad . . . I think of all the trees that are dying for some poor person’s vanity, all these warehoused books that will end up rotting in an attic.
It’s not that I think this material shouldn’t be available in some form (well, at least some of it), but I find it very strange that the book is, apparently, the method of choice. What was once a long article in a magazine is now a book. What could be better covered in an hour documentary airing on The Learning Channel or ESPN is instead sold in hardcover for $27.95. It’s ironic that even as reading is being eclipsed by image-based media, material that is so much more suitable to movies and TVs is being sold in book form.
Perhaps it’s just that in a couple years the economic realities that are putting places like Cody’s out of business will catch up to publishers. Maybe, eventually, the number of titles published in this country will decline. I’m looking forward to that day. The day that publishers are a little more selective about what they publish, that they don’t toss 40 titles out per season and hope a few of them stick. The day that people realize that not everyone has a book in them. We’ll all be better off for it.
Another major Bay Area bookstore goes under (Black Oak Books’s SF branch), and all their stock is sold to . . . Powell’s, an onlline retailer.
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