I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of monoculture. In agriculture, monoculture allows farming a single crop over a vast area, with minimal labor. It’s great for profits, but if that uniform crop becomes diseased, the results can translate to devastation on an equally vast scale. Monoculture happens in other areas too. In our communities, monoculture is most obvious when big box stores squeeze out smaller, local businesses. As a result, downtowns usually die out, malls rise up beyond the city limits, and one place starts looking pretty much like another. Coast to coast, we not only find the same stores, but the same offerings in each of those stores. Chains even duplicate the layout in each of their units so shoppers find them familiar. Undoubtedly these cloned environments are easier on the accountants and marketers…but they create in us, I think, a kind of half-sleep. Say goodbye to challenge or surprise. These retail monuments do not celebrate individuality—what we like to think makes our culture the envy of the world—rather, they impose sameness. It’s easy retailing. True, I’ll find a dozen or more detergent brands in a big box store. But they’re all made by a few large companies that make concessions for the shelf space. I won’t find one made by a small, local concern—because that local company can’t meet the demands for massive quantity. And while I might prefer saving $10 on my weekly grocery bill, those lower prices carry a cost: employees are paid less; suppliers are squeezed for discounts; and my smaller, local stores might very well end up shuttered. And what if the big box leaves? It happened in my own community. The space was far too large for other stores, and was finally torn down—along with a few dozen livelihoods.
The monoculture has also taken its toll on booksellers. Whether Internet mega-warehouses, or the big box chains, these behemoths have forced countless smaller shops out of business. This is sad, and, in its own way, dangerous. Forget nostalgia. Let’s talk finances: Independent bookstores are members of the community. When you shop at an independent bookstore, a significant percentage of each purchase actually stays in the community. Indie booksellers are invested in the community and its people in the way a big box with corporate headquarters in some other part of the country is not. True, you may get a deeper discount on a book at a chain store, but I’ll trade a few cents in savings for a bookseller who really knows and loves books, who cares about the community and who has made a commitment to serve a local population.
There are other benefits as well: A few months ago, I approached my local indie bookseller and explained that my husband, an avid mystery reader, had pretty much exhausted the titles from his 6 favorite authors. The bookseller led me to three authors—not in the broad genre of mystery—but in the very specific type of mystery my husband enjoys. Viola! A new world opened up—all because my bookseller reads…and listens to her customers. I’ve had indie booksellers introduce me to little known treasures, and help me decide between “must reads” with honest insights because they read the books. Add to this the tremendous delights of “local flavor.” Each indie bookstore is different. Each carries the personality of its owner and its community. Each has local authors, or little known authors that it champions. Indie booksellers also take risks. For them, books are not products whose only value is measured through profit or loss. An independent bookseller will offer books that meet the interests of local readers. They will carry a title that might not be a blockbuster…or that might raise a few eyebrows. And they’ll carry the blockbusters too. Independents appreciate the independence of their readers. They don’t exist to censor choices, but make choices available. For me, the independent bookstore is an oasis—a place of refuge.
I’ve gravitated to indie bookstores since I had my first spending money, but only recently did I start collecting photos of them. Every time my husband or I travel, we visit local booksellers. I already have a small collection of these photos…but I’m going to start with two of my three favorite indie bookstores in St. Louis. I’ll post more photos in future blogs. These stores have opinions and the people who own and work in them represent ideas—not capital P Publishers and marketing deals. If you don’t know these stores, I encourage you to visit them. And if you have a favorite independent bookstore of your own, please share it here.
Left Bank Books
321 No. 10th Street
(also Central West End)
St. Louis, MO 63101
375 Old Orchard Ave.
Webster Groves, MO 63119