It occurred to me recently that the survival of independent bookstores in the US has a lot in common with the Stars Wars saga. Think of it like this: a ragtag band of quirky, talented and determined individuals is battling a massive, powerful opponent that wants to dominate and control the universe of book commerce.
The indies need new recruits to join our side in this battle at every opportunity and I recently played a tiny supporting role in that effort.
It all started on a Tuesday in early August. Tuesdays are the usual laydown day for new releases and one of the first boxes I opened contained copies of Emperor Pickletine Rides the Bus. It’s the final episode in the Origami Yoda series. My enthusiasm to get them onto the sales floor was dampened, however, by the inclusion of a cardboard display case.
Don’t get me wrong; display cases can be great promotional tools. But they require some assembly, and I happen to possess no assembly skills of any kind. None. Less than zero. As a kid I was totally flummoxed by construction toys. Erector sets were hopeless. Ditto for Lincoln Logs. I’m not exaggerating. My idea of putting something together is licking an envelope and sealing it for the mail carrier.
Book displays typically have three parts. The cubicles that hold the books are pre-assembled. That’s my favorite part because I can’t mess it up. There is also a “header,” which is inserted onto the top of the cubicle section and proclaims the title in big, bold letters. Lastly and most unpleasant is the base. It has to be folded in a particular way in order to accommodate the cubicles, and securing the entire structure requires the proper use of two horrible features: tabs and flaps.
The tabs and flaps are supposed to fit through slots and holes that never quite line up properly, and when trying to make an adjustment to one side the entire display often comes apart and falls to the floor. Watching me struggle with this task is, I’m pretty certain, almost exactly like observing some unfortunate primate in a test laboratory trying to assemble a typewriter.
In every case what saves me is a voice calling inside my head. It sounds a lot like Obi Wan Kenobi. Remember in the original Star Wars when Luke Skywalker was trying to launch a bomb to destroy the Death Star and he kept missing the mark and then he heard Obi-Wan saying, “ Luke, use the force!” The voice I hear says, “Jeff! Use the tape! Use lots of tape!”
It works every time. To heck with the flaps and tabs. I just get them in halfway decent position and then lay on layers of mailing tape. By the time I’m finished the display is as solid as a mini-Gibraltar. My mood at the end of this process isn’t elation. Mostly I’m just relieved that I didn’t tear anything by accident, or tear the whole thing apart in a frenzy of frustration.
The display was positioned in the young reader’s section around 11AM and just a few minutes later I happened to walk past the sales counter. A boy was there with his mom, and he was holding a copy of Emperor Pickletine.
“He said today is the day it comes out,” mom was explaining to one of my colleagues, “so we decided to just come over and get it right away.”
When I was a kid I never even thought about book release dates. How long ago and far away that seems. Then I stopped to ponder what had just happened. A boy knew that a book he wanted very much was coming out on a certain day. He told his mother, she was nice enough to transport him to their local bookstore, they walked to the kids’ area, and right there in front of them was a display of the books. In that moment, for one boy, a range of disparate forces converged to produce a successful, satisfying outcome in this little part of the galaxy. Score another victory for our side. It needs to happen again, many times.
And now the saga continues.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller and booklover at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. He continues to blog about politics and popular culture for Huffington Post and also contributes to the “Modern Parent” blog at the Christian Science Monitor. His latest collection of commentaries about modern life, entitled Who Am I Today (Subtopian Press), is available through most independent bookstores.