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Broken Borders: Have Indie Bookstores Finally Beat 'The Man'?

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Five years ago, the independent bookstore was likely fated to join the cassette tape: nostalgically revered, but tragically doomed. Despite hand picked recommendations, too-cool cashiers, and erudite small talk, the local bookstore didn’t stand a chance against the Big Guys—corporations like Barnes and Noble, Borders, and the true Iago of bookselling, Amazon. Then came the Kindle, the Nook, whatever the hell Sony makes, and all-too-quickly the local bookstore was thrown into certain extinction. Indie booksellers started looking less like the counter-culture revolutionaries they once were and more like, well, Luddites. But this month, something sensational happened: mega-chain Borders went belly-up and despite bleak predictions, many of LA’s indie bookstores aren’t just still standing—some are downright thriving. That’s right: mom-and-pop bookshops are back, baby.

Well, hopefully. LA bookstores reacted somewhat cautiously to the Borders bankruptcy. Emily Puller of Los Feliz indie Skylight Books issued a surprisingly somber blog post that conceded, “I’m glad the chains exist.” Despite the competition, Puller credited Borders for its contribution to booklovers and to marketplace diversity. She attested, “—there ain’t no joy in a bookstore closing. Ever.” That is, unless you were one of the 200 customers issued $20 Vroman’s gift certificates in exchange for your Borders Rewards card. The Pasadena bookstore blogged condolences to the chain’s patrons but gently reminded readers of Vroman’s century-old vigilance; “We’re very sad to see Borders go, but we’re also excited for the future…to have those customers who have been displaced by the loss of Borders discover our store…” West Hollywood’s iconic Book Soup decided they’d rather not say anything at all. But caution is apt—the last thing an independent bookstore needs is bad press.

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LA Reading. Photo by polaroid-girl via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr
So I’ll say it: it’s about time the future brightens for indie booksellers, even if it means chains like Borders have to go. Without question, the greatest job I ever had was at the OC indie Laguna Beach Books—and that’s because good independents do more than sell books, they craft an atmosphere. Employees are both literary confidants and passionate book pushers. Customers grant tips on new books and proffer riddles in the form of mis-remembered titles (“I think it starts with a C…”). Hand-tailored, local-minded, and ideal-driven, indie bookstores do what the Big Guys can’t. Perhaps in principle, Borders shouldn’t have cast such sharp stones. As it turns out, local bookstores have something that big chains can’t quite get right—curatorial prowess. They have personality. Last year, Wired magazine controversially proclaimed that the ‘web was dead’—asserting that the future of the Internet lies foremost in curated content via apps, Facebook, Twitter, et al. With an arsenal of staff shelf-talkers, quirky rounder displays, and carefully selected stock, local bookshops have perfected the art of curatorial book-selling. Sure Amazon can whip up 100 recommendations, but a ‘not interested,’ button leaves little room for the complexity of human fondness. In 2011, despite iBooks and e-readers, independent bookstores are discovering a newfound relevancy to a culture drunk on digitalism.

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Whether hosting in-store book groups, showcasing local authors, or gracing neighbors with great reads, indies maintain the grass-roots good fight. While people cry the end of print, indie bookstores continue to wage quiet battles against costly book publishers, a hard-hit economy, and increasing rent prices. In the wake of the Borders bankruptcy, it seems the efforts of local bookstores are finally paying off. The near future might bear bad news for the Big Guys, but rest assured: In 2011, independent bookstores are still holding it down.

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