Wal-Mart Nation

Tucson's Largest And Oldest Indy Bookstore Has Fallen Victim To The Super-store Juggernauts.

By Jeff Yanc

TO THE EVER-expanding list of vanishing Americana, we must now add the Bookmark, Tucson's last family owned and operated general interest bookstore. Two months after celebrating its 40th anniversary as Tucson's premiere independent oasis of unique, stimulating and just plain weird literature, the store, often regarded by authors and customers as the southwest's finest independent bookstore, is closing its hatches and submerging forever into the murky waters of a Wal-Mart nation.

The Bookmark's sad story is not unique--it's the fourth independent bookstore to close in the Tucson area in the last two years, and one among hundreds closing across the country, seemingly on a daily basis. It's no real surprise that this city's largest and oldest indy bookstore has finally fallen victim to the super-bookstore juggernauts quickly insinuating their way into every corner of every major city in the nation. In a cultural climate that demands quantity over quality, and encourages consumers to desire familiarity over innovation, the passing of a unique Tucson fixture such as the Bookmark makes perfect sense.

Books By focusing its attention on local and unknown authors and out-of-the-mainstream book titles, the Bookmark seemed woefully out of step with the chain stores' emphasis on proven commodities. In a landscape crowded with generically faceless McMegaMarts, the store's unabashedly funky personality sealed its fate. From its eye-popping turquoise-blue paint job to its handwritten display signs, its labyrinth-like shelves crammed to overflowing with titles both common and arcane, and its diverse staff of passionate, book-loving bibliophiles, the store just couldn't help being, well, different. And as difference itself becomes an increasingly ineffective business strategy, the unique and singular must quietly be led out of the building. Ironically, it's the store's very uniqueness that will sorely be missed by Tucson once it no longer exists.

As a true book fiend, longtime patron, and current employee of the Bookmark, it's easy for me to become sentimental over its passing. The final days leave indelible impressions burned into my memory: the steady stream of dismayed, loyal customers tearfully recounting stories of the lasting impression the store and its employees (many of whom have worked at the Bookmark for over 15 years) have left on their lives; the constantly asked question, which has become somewhat of a mantra throughout the building, "But where will I shop now?" ; the local authors, such as Barbara Kingsolver, stopping buy to offer their condolences and gratefully acknowledge the Bookmark's instrumental role in helping their careers take flight when chain stores would not take notice; the ever-emptying shelves dwindling to nothingness in anticipation of the store's final hour, lending the constant reminder that this is indeed the end. While the outcome of the battle between indys and chains seemed inevitable for the Bookmark, the emotional impact of its death still resonates strongly, not only for its employees, but for the community as well. It also illuminates serious social issues that are currently in the spotlight.

The dire state of independent bookstores is a hot topic of cultural debate at the moment, thanks in large part to the eerily prescient December 1998 release of the Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan blockbuster, You've Got Mail, which uses the indy/chain struggle as a backdrop for romantic comedy, and which inadvertently becomes as timely a piece of capitalist propaganda disguised as fluffy entertainment as Hollywood has ever produced. For the two people who have not yet seen the film, it details the destruction of an independent bookstore (owned by the scrappy Ryan) by the hands of a Death Star-sized chain bookstore (owned by the greedy but charming Hanks) that moves in across the street. The film pays brief lip-service to the "evils" of corporate chains by depicting Ryan as a truly passionate book lover and Hanks as a shallow corporate shark who wouldn't know a book from a bottle of olive oil, and by showing that mega-stores use huge discounts, coffee bars, and flashy window displays to clobber the little guys, who just sell books. Despite all of this, the film ultimately supports the chain store ideology by having Ryan's character, a passionate defender of the independent spirit, blithely sipping coffee at Starbucks every morning before trudging off to her slowly dying bookstore, and by having her gleefully forget all of her hard feelings at having her 42- year-old family business obliterated by the chain competition because she just can't help falling for the big galoot who orchestrated its demise.

While it's not at all surprising that a major Hollywood studio, with corporate ties to both book publishing firms and chain bookstores, would valorize the chains over the independents, it is disturbing that such ideology is couched within a slickly formulaic romantic comedy which allows its ideals to pass invisibly to the public. It is through repeated inclusion in media products that are seen as "just entertainment" that such ideologies take hold in the collective consciousness and become naturalized, and which makes a sad event such as the closing of the Bookmark seem almost redundant.

What the coincidental timing of the release of You've Got Mail and the Bookmark's closing (and the major local press attention it has received) indicates is a high level of cultural awareness of the plight of indy booksellers in the face of corporate encroachment. While the film may blatantly reinforce prevailing ideologies that champion the chains, it has also seemingly opened many people's eyes to the very existence of a power struggle being played out in the book-selling arena. Many indy customers lured away by the chains can now see that discontinued support leads to certain death for the indys. Not only has the film sparked heated discussions among bookstore employees and customers, the debate also rages on the Internet as well. For example, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (http://www.nciba.com/patholt.htm) has posted an ongoing dispute between book sellers, independent watchdogs, and other interested parties over the film and the issues it raises. If you feel passionately about the future of independents, now is the time to make your voice heard.

So, with the chain-ing of America firmly underway, and with Tucson's last general interest indy bookstore having fallen prey to consumers' desire for discounts and spacious parking lots, where does that leave the Tucson book lover? Without choices. While change may be good for the economy, it may not be so healthy for basic First Amendment freedoms of choice and expression. Yes, change and profit are obvious and irreversible components of capitalism--after all, book selling is a business, and those stores that sell the most books will survive, and stores must adapt to social change in order to gain consumer support. Economic Darwinism dictates that the mighty shall prevail by devouring the weak. Yet the long-term effects this new breed of super bookstores will have on our lives, our ideas, and our ability to exercise free choice are potentially bleak.

The free enterprise system of economic competition has traditionally ensured the American consumer a multitude of choices as to where to spend and what to buy with their hard-earned money. However, as the book industry edges ever closer to a monopoly system of corporate dictatorship, these choices are strangled. While the chain stores are not "evil," by destroying bastions of difference such as the Bookmark in the name of progress, they effectively restrict access to the very idea of choice. Cries of unfair business practices levied against the chains by indy retailers, who are often denied the same discounts from publishers that are afforded the chains, which would allow them to compete more effectively, have led to numerous legal battles--the same issues that have kept Bill Gates and Microsoft dodging antitrust laws for months). In the very near future, if a superstore doesn't carry the book you want, where will you go? Nowhere, because as the only game in town, they will not only be able to decide what reading materials will be available to the public, but with all competition erased, they will also have no strong imperative to offer those huge discounts that initially seemed so attractive.

The consolidation of booksellers into massive chain stores mirrors the kinds of conglomeration practices that currently run rampant in the entire media industry. As the purveyors of media increasingly coalesce into multinational conglomerate corporations, with single companies like Time-Warner owning both production and distribution facilities for books, music, film, TV, radio, magazines, web sites, etc., the range of ideas expressed through that media become more narrow, and the seemingly endless array of choices offered to the buying public is revealed to be an illusion created by vested corporate interests. When the bulk of the printed and electronic information disseminated to the public is created and distributed by only a handful of companies, the freedom to choose our own intellectual pursuits is stymied. Aside from the obviously Orwellian overtones of thought control that media conglomeration implies, the simple pleasure of discovering a good, offbeat book to read based on your own criteria, without the constant corporate pressure to buy the latest bestseller, is all but lost.

We desperately need stores like the Bookmark that do not have ownership ties with these huge corporations, who do not feel corporate pressure to highlight specific authors and titles based on company policy and economic track records, and who are able to hand sell titles based on the love of books and the thrill of the unknown. Independent retailers can have a huge impact on sales for unknown authors, as evidenced by the stunning success of the National Book Award-winning Cold Mountain, by first-time novelist Charles Frazier. The book first started its climb up the bestseller lists as an underground sensation created by excited indy book buyers who read, loved, and hand sold the unpublicized small print-run book to their customers, eventually attracting the attention of Random House, who snapped up the paperback rights and made a fortune.

As the consolidation and commodification of information continues unabated, potentially interesting and subversive materials are slowly removed from the system of production and distribution, because they are not proven sellers. In effect, books become simple commodities, interchangeable with all other retail products--if they don't sell, they're not stocked. But the problem is, selling books is unique within the retail world. Books should not be packaged and sold like running shoes or power tools. Unlike most luxury items, books contain the power to stimulate imaginations, to expand consciousness, and to create new ideas. If we lose the ability to choose what we read, we lose access to the unequaled power contained between the covers of a good book, and to an extent, our own intellect. This inherently unique product deserves to be presented to the public in a fittingly unique manner--by letting individuals choose on their own what they want to read.

This is exactly the service the Bookmark provided to the community for 40 years. While the state of independent booksellers in Tucson looks grim (only a smattering of small specialty shops remain), the independent philosophy remains intact in the store's owners. Co-owner Brenda Blanton is seriously considering the possibility of regrouping and reopening a scaled-down version of the store in a new Tucson location sometime in the near future. "We still have something to offer the community," Blanton says. "We still want to support local authors and offer Tucson a choice in what they read." In a society where access to books, and by extension, ideas themselves, is becoming increasingly dictated by corporate interests, the notion of freedom of choice has never been more precious and vital. TW

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