Saturday, March 2, 2013

All good things...

Newman Bookstore has changed their going out of business discounts. 35% for March and the possibility of further reductions in April. I suspect either items were not flying out the door at 25% or they caught a little flack from a few publishers due to a potential 75% discount (per the original terms) on some very expensive titles - or both.

The 21st century hasn't been kind to bookstores in the US. The late 90s were a period of contraction and the 2000s has been a period of acute decline. The inventory of most bookstores has become largely standardized. "Specialty" shops have not been immune to the homogenization of inventory. When Barnes and Noble purchased Ingram distributors, the largest distributor for independent book shops, in the mid/late 90s, they began altering Ingram's inventory to reflect that of B&N. Thus, Sci-Fi shops, for one example), had access to a potential inventory that largely reflected the content of big box stores. One very fine Sci-Fi shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts (as the owner told me some years ago) lost much of its distinctive inventory (a lot of British imports that hadn't seen publication in the US as well as very obscure offerings from small US publishing houses) reduced by as much as fifty percent (of product). Ingram, under B&N, didn't deal with the independent or overseas publishers, forcing this shop to go through other channels to stock these titles, typically at greater cost. They kept it up for a few years in the late 90s, but by the 2000s it became unfeasible. A real shame, as this shop was a great spot for hard to find Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror titles.

Shops focused around Theology, Religious Studies, and/or Spirituality have undergone a similar decline, although the reasons are slightly more complex. The changes at Ingram are one reason, but one can't ignore the rapid decline in interest in Religion and Spirituality (and I guess we can lump New Age into this as well) that accompanied the beginning of the millennium. During the 80s and 90s, the production and consumption of religion related titles was of incredible breadth - it wasn't just the normal devotional material, the was broad publishing in a wide array of subject areas. Early Christian studies, historical Jesus, Medieval spirituality, mysticism (Christian and Islamic), to name a few. It was, if you were into that sort of thing (which I was) an exciting time. Most book stores have sharply reduced their inventory in these areas, focusing instead on devotional works (the old standby), largely because the popular interest in Religious Studies and Theology that accompanied the run up to the turn of the millennium went into a free fall - God, apparently, hasn't deemed now the proper time to come back.With that change, the market has shifted largely to standard devotional work, with the exception of the occasional "sexy" best seller by Bart Ehrman or Elaine Pagels or the "desperately-in-need-of-some-basic-logic-classes" musings of new-atheism. If you live Stateside and you're one for Theology or Religious Studies, book stores have become a barren landscape - if you're looking for some serious reading. Even a notable shop near Harvard University that specializes in all things related to language and linguistic studies drastically reduced its inventory religious texts in their original language - they were one of the few places in which you could find the Liturgia Horarum on the shelves.

Newman Bookstore had its administrative faults. Ordering from them was never an entirely smooth process as they did not seem to apply any quality controls to their inventory . I received a fair amount of damaged goods and these guys weren't running a massive shipping operation out of a warehouse - this was either right off the shelves or from the backroom. Nevertheless, on account of its inventory, Newman Bookstore was an oasis among the arid sands and wind swept ruins of the independent American bookstore.

There's not much left for book lovers in the US. Amazon is fine, I suppose, if one is a shut in or agoraphobic. However, if you actually like the experience of browsing in a bookshop ("booking" as it was known to Boston bibliophiles who traveled along the T) - there are precious few options left.

For now, if you're a theological type, head over to Newman Bookstore and see if there's anything that catches your eye (and if they'll deliver to your area).