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The Demise of Cody’s Books and the floundering of the independent book store

(also posted on

The demise of independent book stores gets a fair amount of coverage in the literate press. In the Bay Area, we’re witnessing the passing of Cody’s Books, a formerly venerable Berkeley institution whose fortunes collapsed over the last couple of years.

The death knell for independent book stores has been tolling for at least 15 years, beginning with the rise of Barnes and Noble, and then Amazon. Oh, and supposedly, people don’t read.

I find much of the discussion misleading. While the cheaper prices that Amazon and Barnes and Noble are able to provide are one reason for the demise of the independent bookseller, I would argue that the bigger reason is that independent bookstores misunderstood their potential role in the world of retail. They stuck with an outdated 20th (19th?) century notion of being a collection of shelves filled with books, and didn’t embrace the 21st century reality of providing a distinct experience that connects with their customers.

I find this frustrating because I love book stores, and I particularly love independent ones. But I find it shameful that the tenor of the discussion around these failing stores places blame on the customers who no longer shop there (or who never did, and not on the owners who aren’t working to figure out how to adapt to thrive. I can guarantee you that Cody’s never engaged in any type of research to understand what their desired audience wanted from the book store experience — I’m sure they believed they understood their customers, because they were their customers! (Of course, this is true only if their desired customers were aging Boomers… Cody’s never bridged to the younger generations that now make up the bulk of Berkeley.)

Also, Cody’s held on to outdated thinking that a store is a collection of items on shelves. That is simply no longer sufficient — you will never compete with the Web’s infinite shelf space, and the deeper discounts that such volume allows them to provide. Apart from the occasional book signing, Cody’s never took advantage of their physical location to provide a literary experience. Why not learn from the success of Borders or Barnes and Nobles? Cody’s never offered comfy chairs or coffee. It never tried to be a destination. It just did the same thing it always did, which proved quixotic when it was clear the world around them was changing.

As such, I find it hard to feel bad about the demise of Cody’s (or any other independent bookseller). And it depresses me to see them talked about as if they’re charities that warrant “saving.” There are many ways book sellers can evolve to create a desirable literary experience that keeps customers coming, attracts new customers, and moves product. I continue to think a huge untapped opportunity for independent booksellers is to connect customers with one another. As such, I’m curious to see what happens with Indiebound, the next generation of BookSense (the national marketing program on behalf of independent bookstores), to see if they’re able take advantage of “the social” to re-stoke people’s passion for their local independent bookstore.

  1. Your article addresses the way that content is packaged, as well as some factors affecting the number of readers and the amount of sales, but not the sales mix or the content of what’s sold. It is true that, despite concerns that with the standardization of bookstores’ stock, diversity would decline, and alternative titles and perspectives would be marginalized or lost altogether, this does not characterize what has happened overall—up to now. Instead, online companies like Amazon have made a broad array of books available, more so than any independent stores could. Nevertheless, for reasons mainly rooted in business considerations, it is harder for small publishers to get their books into the chains than into independent stores.
    One seldom-discussed but very important reality arising from the increased centralization and standardization of the online services, bookstore chains, and big distributors is that it becomes possible to more quickly, thoroughly, and “surgically” remove certain titles if some program of censorship is instituted. Putting everything online often tends to lead to the atrophy of other distribution channels. Think, for example, of how this would have affected the underground “samizdat” tiles in the USSR, or of the forms this could take here if the market forces that usually threaten to bury alternative books were deemed insufficient. “These books aid and abet terrorism—you must take them off the shelves.” That’s not a paranoid delusion; it is palpable. And under sufficient pressure, this is what a big store or distributor could feel compelled to do. Nowadays, it is possible to knock out, say, 90% of sales with the click of a button. This is one reason why, potentially at least, stores like Cody’s are so valuable. Still, at present, if the state tried to prevent Amazon from listing lots of alternative titles, it would likely create a major ruckus.
    So overall, it’s a very contradictory situation. Companies like Amazon have clearly made more titles available to more people, and helped them find them with their “you’d be interested in these other titles” features. This has forced some of the chain stores to carry a broader range of books. And it may seem to have made the alternative stores—often still caught up in the business understanding of the 1960s—irrelevant. But there are dangers in collapsing things into an overreliance on big networks, or in emphasizing form over content. Most major cities have a couple of stores similar to Cody’s, and they can play an essential role in promoting free inquiry and critical thought, even with their “rows of shelves”—and in many ways, because of them. But to do so, they must learn the lessons embodied in Cody’s failure.

  2. As someone who dreams of having his own indie-bookstore, I think you’ve hit it on the head. For any bookstore to survive, it needs to go beyond the ‘shelves’ thought. I think it’s a failure in brand building, community outreach, and love of the written word.

    I would think that, in this age of mass-customization and trends of exclusivity, indie-bookstores (and specialty-bookshops) would flourish. This is a great time to have an indie-bookstore. Heaven save us if all we have are the Amazons and Borders of the world.

    Great post.

  3. Book Soup,, was my local for many years. I never left my nearby office on foot without a browse in the Soup. Glenn Goldman was an entrepreneur as bookseller. If I asked about a book or author not in stock, he would order one for me and two or three more for his shelves. As his store and shelf space grew I would come to see many fresh titles by authors that had been requested or recommended by customers like myself and Robert Towne. Glenn respected the tastes and interests of his patrons and used them to great advantage to his store and to the authors and artists whose works he offered for sale.

    Glenn died last week. He was a truly nice guy and a valuable contributor to the cultural and economic development of West Hollywood. I have not mourned the many closings of independent book stores these past years. The ones I was familiar with usually seemed solipsistically fussy, arteriosclerotic and unable to respond to special requests. But I can only hope that Glenn has left a stronger legacy with his Book Soup.

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