If you’ve been following literary news in the last year or decade or whatever, you know there’s growing animosity between smaller bookstores and a certain giant book retailer named after the world’s largest river. It’s no surprise; it’s yet another story of the Big Guy vs the Little Guy that has been changing the face of the retail world for decades but that often goes unnoticed.
Until this time of year: the season when giant retailers bombard us with garish TV advertisements, endless holiday songs blaring over poor-quality sound systems, and an overload of spam email. A season that reaches a crescendo still weeks before the holiday with Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
What happened to Norman Rockwell’s Christmas? Setting aside time to celebrate family and friends? Quietly contemplating one’s spirituality? I used to love Christmastime when I was a child. Singing along with Mitch Miller as my family decorated the tree. Marveling at Marshall Field’s intricate window displays on a blustery Saturday afternoon. Setting cookies out for Santa and praying for fresh snow.
But now I almost dread this holiday, and each year I feel more and more Grinchy when the retail industry’s Christmas Chaos begins to settle upon us like a volcanic ash cloud hovering overhead. I know I’m partly to blame. As a member of our materialistic society, I’ve done my share of shopping over the years, feeding and fueling those insatiable commercial appetites.
Shopping may not be completely unavoidable. But it can be a lot more pleasant and rewarding, I’ve decided, if you stick to the smaller stores. This past weekend, Small Business Saturday was celebrated across the country, and I had the privilege of participating in the event at two local bookstores: Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle and University Book Store in Bellevue, Washington. While milling about these stores, I had conversations about books with old women and young men. I asked employees about their favorite genres and authors. I traded experiences with fellow authors, and I recommended their work to customers rather than my own.
A lot of authors–even some of the big names, like Neil Gaiman, Matthew Thomas, and of course Seattle’s own Sherman Alexie–did the same thing in hundreds of independent bookstores across the country, from Oblong Books & Music in New York to Kona Stories in Hawaii. Readers and writers were connecting from coast to coast, and according to Shelf Awareness, a book industry newsletter, reports from the stores were glowing after the event.
But the glowing sales figures aren’t what mattered most to me. What glowed even brighter, in my opinion, were the faces of the people I met in these smallish stores, and especially the faces of the owners and managers. I don’t even know if any of my books sold on Saturday, but I don’t care, because what I gained was far more valuable than a few dollars.
Inc. Magazine ran an article last week about why small businesses should matter to all of us (and not just on Small Business Saturday). “At the heart of every small business is a person with a dream.”
Isn’t that what our future depends on? People and their dreams?
Okay, so I sound preachy, I know. I can’t help it. Remember Jimmy Buffet’s song, Fruitcakes?
“We need people that care! I’m mad as hell and I don’t want to take it anymore!”
Well, that’s kind of how I’m feeling right now. And I’m also thinking that time isn’t the most valuable thing in life anymore. Maybe what’s most valuable is connecting with other people. Supporting each other. And trying to stay sane, in a chaotic world, along the way.
So shop small this season. You’ll be happy you did.