Sunday, January 31, 2010

Passing Up the Chance to Pick Over a Carcass

Not too long ago, independent book dealer Duthie Books, an institution of the Vancouver book scene, announced it was closing it's last store location. Their final going-out-of-business sale started on Thursday and will last a couple of weeks, but while I've never met a book sale I didn't like, I won't be circling with the other vultures this time.

There's no arguing that it's getting tough out there for book retailers. SF Signal did a great interview with Alan Beatts, the owner of Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco, a few years ago, where Beatts explains in detail the challenges faced by independents these days in the form of national big box chain competition and Amazon. Throw in last year's economic slump, and the general culture shift over the past few decades where the increasing story complexity and visual candy of video games are drawing more kids away who otherwise might have read more and grown into fandom, and bookstore owners (especially independents) have got some pretty impressive odds stacked against them.

While conditions here in Canada are somewhat different than in the US (our economy wasn't pounded anywhere near as hard because we know how to manage it better), our national big box, Chapters, with the Canadian wing of Amazon coming in pincus-like on the other side, have hit the little guys hard. Case in point: Winnipeg's McNally Robinson, a fine bookselling company with (at least when I lived there briefly back in the 90's) great selection, friendly staff who knew their stock, and beautiful dark green stores accented with wood; but ultimately a store that got hammered down by competition and a few wrong moves by management to the point where they're down to just a couple of stores, only one of which is in the 'Peg, their home town.

Now it's Duthie, except this time, this 53-year-old landmark for booklovers on the Lower Mainland is going down for the count.

To be fair, Duthie's been in a downward spiral for years. I can remember back at the end of the 90's when they had several locations in Vancouver, including one at Robson & Hornby (right in the heart of the Downtown shopping district) where I used to go. But then Chapters started rampaging across the region. Word came that the giant (which had evolved out of the Coles/WH Smith/World's Biggest Bookstore conglomerant - this was years before it was taken over by Indigo) was going to set up one of its megastores in the heart of Downtown. To protect its turf, Duthie shut down the Robson & Hornby store and opened its own big box a couple of blocks away at Georgia & Granville. Problem is, that didn't stop Chapters from proceeding with its plans and opening up shop a couple of blocks away at Robson & Howe anyway. Inability to keep up with Chapters' pricing, along with other factors no doubt, led to the demise of the Duthie big box, and over time, their various other small, pre-existing outlets, were closed too.

That left Duthie with their last location on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano. And now, unable to compete, they're finally calling it quits.

But as I mentioned before, I won't be going to take part in their last hurrah by buying some of their SF leftovers.

And this isn't because I'm shocked and upset by Duthie being forced to close due to competitive market forces to the point where I feel I can't legitimize what's happened by participating in a going-out-of-business sale. Far from it. While I think it's unfortunate they're done, I have, in principle, no problem at all with taking advantage of a break in price on their books.

It isn't because their SF section is small. While it is tiny, many's the time that I've been in bookstores with small SF sections where I've found stock that no-one else is carrying yet, or that no-one else has carried in a long time and which might even be out of print. You can find some buried treasure when you take the time to check a bookstore to see if it has an SF section, no matter how small it may be at first glance. Besides, while SF may be my passion, I enjoy reading other types of books as well, and in theory it would be worth while to see what the other sections held.

It isn't because I don't support local small business. Quite the contrary, I'm a huge fan of neighbourhood businesses. Anyone who's read this blog long enough knows I'll sing the praises of White Dwarf Books - Vancouver's SF specialty bookshop - at the drop of a hat. Small business owners and their staff (for the most part) know their products very well and take the time to get to know their customers.

I'm not going to Duthie's swan-song sale because of bad customer service.

Back in the years before Duthie started to fall towards the retail event horizon, I used to be a somewhat regular customer at their Robson & Hornby location. Not every week mind you, but reliably every three months or so and on those visits I'd usually buy a couple of books. I'd go Downtown, go into the store, take a cursory glance around the small street-level shop, then head downstairs to their much larger basement section. The place reminded me a lot of the library basement in the opening of Ghostbusters. Even though the floor tiles, ceiling and walls were white to try to make the place bright, the ceiling was low, the stacks were close to one-another, and even when there were lots of people down there (and this was frequently the case, remember, prime Downtown business and shopping district - people were coming in all the time), you didn't really see them or hear them much... it always felt empty and haunted. And yet they had a fantastic selection. There was never a time when I went in there and couldn't find something new and interesting, or something old that I didn't know about - and this is despite the fact that between my visits to Duthie I was going to other stores every couple of weeks, so I knew the new stock fairly well. To top it off, the staff were always friendly and a couple of them knew their SF pretty well. It was a pleasure to do business with Duthie in the old days.

Fast forward to last year. The Duthie empire had crumbled with the Fourth Ave/Kits store left as its sole remaining outpost. I had some time on my hands one afternoon and spent a few hours walking up and down the strip, and in addition to checking out other stores, went in to see what Duthie had. I was immediately struck by the sour reek of exclusivity. To be fair, Kits is a place with its fair share of hipsters, university students, wannabe-artists, trend-chasers and assorted other hangers-on. But there are an equal number, if not more, of people who are generally talented, intelligent, creative, and cutting edge, but who are friendly and down-to-earth. On that day the store was staffed only by the former group. It's as though I'd walked through the door and some airport-like uncool detector had triggered a silent alarm, informing the Dieter-from-Sprockets brigade behind the counter and at the restocking carts that someone not of the scene had violated the sanctity of their store's pretension zone. I moseyed to the back (yep, the stereotype was in effect - gotta keep the SF section crammed away in the farthest, darkest - yes, the light above the section had gone out and not been replaced - back corner like twitchy cousin Skippy to make sure the neighbours don't see him) and found a book I hadn't seen anywhere else. Book in hand, I browsed around the rest of the store for a while before heading to the front counter to settle up. That in itself seemed to be quite an affront to the 20-year-old staffer who deigned to break off his conversation with one of his colleagues to punch through my purchase. He glared and sighed dramatically the entire time as though I was guilty of some intellectual offence by purchasing SF rather than the vegan cookbook of the week or the latest reprint of Satre. I laid down my cash, took my book, and left knowing that was the last time I'd go into that store.

Now, I'm sure that unrelenting competition from Chapters and Amazon ground Duthie down. I'm willing to believe they probably never recovered from the debacle of their attempt at superstoredom Downtown. I'm aware that real estate prices on the Lower Mainland are through the roof and rent or taxes on their business may have been a burden. But while that store may have had one or two good staffers (not that I saw them), I'm positive that if a reasonably normal-lookin' guy like me got treated as badly as I did last year, the same thing must have happened to plenty of other people. It's one thing for a big box retailer's staff to be impersonal, it's quite another for a neighbourhood store's staff to be snotty. If you treat people badly, your customer base will erode and with no customer loyalty, you won't be able to compete against the big guys, or even just hold your own in your own part of town. In the end, I have to wonder if, at least in part because of their staffing, they brought this on themselves.

I'm not going to the sale at Duthie's because even as they go out of business and need every dollar they can get, they don't deserve my business. Not anymore anyway. And now there won't be a chance to win it back.

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