How close are we to losing independent bookstores? We’ve seen the last of Dutton’s and much beloved Acres of Books in Long Beach closed last year; more recently, A Different Light flipped the switch. Finally, tragically, to the outcry of chefs across the city, Cook’s Library will close on April 30. When I dropped by a week ago, all books currently were discounted 40%, but this may increase as the shutter date draws near.
For the uninitiated, Cook’s Library sells (sold) cookbooks. Nothing but cookbooks. Cookbooks of every cuisine, ingredient, old and new. The first time I visited, I was just floored with the amount and diversity of books; who knew that some of these books were still in print! Old Julia Child books, older editions of Joy of Cooking, a few rare MFK Fishers. I was a poor grad student then and couldn’t afford to pay the full retail price for any of the books I discovered, so I gleefully read what I could and checked out what I couldn’t at the library. Therein lies the problem.
During my farewell visit, I overheard the staff attribute the closing to the fact that they could no longer compete with the big chains or with customers (like me) who browsed their store but bought online — similar to how I eat all the free cheese samples at Whole Foods but buy the same wedge, cheaper, at Bay Cities. So, as I skimmed the half-empty shelves looking for a good deal on a good cookbook, I felt a bit guilty.
As a general rule, I never pay full price for a book if I can help it. Going back to my early days as 1st grader Booking-It to earn my personal pan pizza, I always either checked my books out at the library or waited for it to show up at a used book sales instead. I completely blame my book-wise thriftiness on my mom, who has never paid full price for a book in her life. Case in point: this here is but one wall of my mom’s house:
I thought about my mom’s mini-library as I listened to the staff struggle with the fact that independent bookstores absolutely must, finally, come to terms with the fact that only a tiny, tiny fraction of monied, well-educated people with self-imposed senses of morality will pay $35 for a hardcover simply because it is being sold at an independent bookstore. For example, at Cook’s Library, we walked out $92 lighter for the 6 cooksbooks we bought, all at 40% off. I came home to find that Amazon sells most of the books I bought for about the same 40%-off-sales price I paid.
The most striking price difference was for the newest, most popular book in our batch: The Paley’s Place Cookbook, from the chef-owners of the Portland restaurant of the same name. The difference between this book’s full retail price, as ordinarily sold at Cook’s Library, and the price at Amazon: $12. Twelve dollars.
On the other hand, I don’t have the patience to scroll through digitized versions of books and thus am not very likely to discover new books simply by Amazon surfing. For example, here’s one I likely would not have discovered simply by surfing Amazon: Sustainable Cuisine White Papers (which will prove to be incredibly annoying and elitist, or not), found after digging through a disturbingly large pile of Paula Deens. Proving that online is not always cheaper, this book was $15 at both Cook’s Library and Amazon. Proving that online is almost always cheaper, this book was the only one out of the 6 which Amazon did not outprice.
So, what is a fledgling brick and mortar bookstore with heavy, immoveable, space-consuming, non-returnable inventory under Amazon’s pressure to do? Some propose neighborhood engagement – for example, Skylight Books in Los Feliz so far successfully engages all sectors of the community, from MFA grad students to cat lovers to distinguished authors, as part of its claim to success. Stories in Echo Park is doing all sorts of novel things like hosting a knitting club to earn loyal customers. This loyalty might produce enough sales.
Might. As positive steps as those may be, I’m not quite sure how sustainable it is. Cook’s Library, for instance, hosted all sorts of book signings, was loved by the foodie community, and was a regular participant at community events like Planned Parenthood’s annual Food Fare. A Different Light had a cultish following among the gay community. Even Dutton’s, which was avidly beloved, could not be saved by its tony Brentwood customers. The value added by a bookshop owner’s personal attention and off-the-cuff knowledge that you’re better off reading Harold McGee than watching Alton Brown, for better or much worse, does not erase the generally correct assumption that Harold McGee is cheaper elsewhere.
There has to be a quid pro quo: you, bookstore, lose the literary arrogance and price your wares at a point that is comparable (as opposed to completely out of sync) with the Amazons of the online world, and I’ll be more than happy to pay a few extra dollars for the privilege of finding obscure books under a heap of Southern cooking. And, hey, when we do meet in the middle, maybe that personal pan pizza will look less like a final meal and more like a shared victory.
Bon appetit, Cook’s Library. Bon appetit.