duty to the customers? readers? public?

Bookseller Chick has an interesting post on the subject of bookshops that don’t stock particular books or otherwise isolate books the owners/operators find distasteful. I’ve been thinking about it now for a while and it seems to me that there’s an underlying question:

Does a bookseller have an obligation to her customers? And if so, what’s the nature of that obligation?

In any business the idea is to make money. A bookseller is no different. Talking for a moment here about an independent bookstore, the owner has (1) a limited amount of space and resources (2) a customer base to keep interested (3) her own opinions and priorities.

What independent bookseller can stock everything? Is it better to stock a lot of one thing or a little of everything? If I go into a bookstore looking for Faulkner or Byatt or Crusie and they don’t have it, what conclusions do I draw from that?

It depends on what happens when I ask. The bookseller who says, I’m sorry I don’t have that in stock, can I order it for you? — that’s somebody I can strike up a conversation with. I may not agree on his or her reasons for not stocking romance, but as long as she’s polite and as long as she recognizes she’s going to lose some potential customers, really, she’s met all her obligations, as far as I can see.

If I owned a small bookstore there are books I wouldn’t stock. I can name two titles: American Psycho, and The Anarchist’s Cookbook. They have a lot in common, these two books. You want to blow something up, you want to torture women to death? You want at least to read about these things — that’s up to you, but I’m not going to stock the books. If you ask me, I will check with other booksellers and the library to see where you can find it, but that’s the extent. If you ask me why, I’ll say simply that I have made a decision based on my own principles and priorities.

And that would be my right, just as it’s the anarchist’s right to go find the book someplace else and never come into my bookstore again.

Of course, if I limit my stock to books about civil war reenactment and dominoes, I will go out of business, and that will be entirely my own fault.

My two cents.

4 Replies to “duty to the customers? readers? public?”

  1. Actually, we carried the Anarchist’s Cookbook when I had a bookstore, but it was mostly for the sedimental value–I was a former punk, my partner was a former hippie, and we were both reprobates to some degree. (That, and it was a constant source of amusement to us that kids wouldn’t buy the book because somehow, pre-internet days, yet they’d still heard “a rumor” that we’d demand their ID and tell the FBI if they’d bought the book. Unh-hunh, like I got nothin’ better to do than tell the FBI what stinkin’ books you bought at some two-bit tiny small-town bookstore. Dream on.)

    Anyway.

    I think a great deal of it depends on the bookstore’s marketing. Our town had Main Street Books, just a block or so away, and if you wanted NY Times Bestseller? Main Street, mainstream, figure it out. We were “small press and university press” and evolved into “alternative anything”. (Anarchist’s Cookbook is a small press printing, so…it fell under the umbrella.) I used to tell people, “we have all the subject areas, but our authors aren’t the ones you’ll see at the Walden’s at the Mall.”)

    As a former scholar/theologian, the books I actually refused to carry were ones that I found seriously lacking in scholarship. There was one pagan-related book, Witta, that was so egregious it was beyond laughable, and into the “sad, truly sad” category. I flatly refused to carry it, once I got my mitts on a copy and saw how horrendous and exploitative it really was. Sent it right back and told the local pagans they could get it from somewhere else. Never got a complaint once I explained my reasons.

    We had sixty magazines in the shop, too, on a huge range of topics, and every now and then some hippie would wander in and wonder out loud why we didn’t carry High Times. I had to explain repeatedly that I had Out, Tricycle, Off Our Backs, Heavy Metal, and a few other titles that were seriously pushing the tolerance levels of the otherwise-willing-to-tolerate Southern Baptists that filled our town. I wasn’t up to tipping the scales; I picked my battles. I supported alternative spirituality, lifestyle, and medicine, and throwing the legalize-drugs part would’ve been one thing too many, I was certain.

    I did get annoyed, though, when people would walk in and expect me to have books on the Civil War. There were five antique stores in town that had books on the Civil War (and Rev War, for that matter). Why should I carry those, too? They wouldn’t sell. That wasn’t my speciality. I carried what sold to my local patrons, and was more than happy to have nearby bookstores who’d carry the things I wouldn’t/didn’t/couldn’t (including the 7-11 over by Rt 3 that did carry High Times, take that, you lazy non-driving hippies).

    In the end, the obligation is to the repeat customer, the loyal customer. I had no problem saying, “I don’t carry that but I can order it”–I had access to any published book, after all, even if I only carried certain limited titles. I did a lot of special orders for folks that way. And there were subjects I did start carrying solely because of my customers–the entire ‘alternative anything’ was because the local gay population snapped up what I’d ordered when opening, they demanded more, so I ordered it, they bought it, nice feedback loop.

    One person walking in off the street with no purchasing history? Not really a lot of obligation. Someone who’s by all the time, purchases regularly, who says: “would you carry more of this subject?” … in a small bookstore, you just might find that if the local community supports it, a shelf might be devoted to Antique Tai-Chi Weaponry after all.

    Or the Anarchist’s Cookbook, which, I must add, was purchased almost exclusively by adults who’d find it on the shelves and holler to their friends, “Oh my god I haven’t seen this in years we had a xeroxed copy and tried smoking banana peels oh my GOD I have to buy this, it’s hysterical, I feel young again!” And then we’d all talk about how kids these days just don’t know jack and feel all smug and old and life went on.

    The kids were too busy ogling Heavy Metal, anyway. *snicker*

  2. This is why I like comments. I’ve learned a few things, but now I have a question: do you think that nobody ever uses the anarchist’s cookbook anymore to … blow things up? I’ve wondered for a while if the Columbine kids had a copy.

  3. We had numerous discussions about the fact that the bombs in the book really do work (I had a few, err, entertaining evenings as a teenager with some empty beer bottles, a few socks, and some cheap cologne and it’s, uh, I’ll stop there). The kids, I found, were far more interested in “the drug recipes”–all of which, without exception, do nothing more than make you sick and possibly stink up your bedroom, to boot. (I have that on good authority, at least; I was never interested in much more than fireworks and things going boom. Bad me.)

    But to be honest, the kids then–that was mid-90s–were still quite certain the Anarchist’s Cookbook was one of those whose sales were watched devoutly by the FBI, which is why the kids instead exchanged xeroxed copies of a few pages. Post-90s, I’d bet any kid wouldn’t bother, since it’s not like they can’t find two hundred more recipes for anything, all courtesy a solid internet access. By now I’d expect the book is nothing more than a collector’s item to anyone thirty or over.

    I have no idea whether or not the Columbine kids would’ve even bothered; most of the kids/adults I knew with any connection to the A.C. were suburban or urban. Rural kids, raised around guns, usually knew far more than us, and had a chance to do things like turn Mom’s old pot into a bottle rocket repository. Most country kids I’ve met are a great deal more savvy about blowing things up; suburban & urban kids just don’t get that chance to the same degree. Fewer places to do it, for starters.

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