Friend or Foe?

  • By Adam Henig
  • January 30, 2020

How “Friends of the Library” undermine indie bookstores.

Friend or Foe?

I support libraries. I support independent bookstores. So, why do I have to choose between them?

Ever since libraries have been vulnerable to budget cuts, dedicated citizens have formed nonprofits under the “Friends of the Library” banner in order to maintain library services and, in some cases, expand their reach. The majority of Friends’ organizations raise revenue through two primary ways: membership dues and sales of used books.

As volunteers, members of these groups perform time-consuming and backbreaking work. Most of them are retired, older women (often former teachers or librarians) who schlep countless banker boxes and canvas bags of donated used books from the circulation desk to their storefront, usually housed within the library building.

These books, many recent releases, are then sold to the general public at an enormous discount: coffee-table books for $3; adult hardcovers for a buck. Adult paperbacks go for 50 cents; children’s books are a quarter.

This is the problem.

It wasn’t long ago that independent bookstores seemed destined to go the way of record stores. Given the rise of Amazon and chains like Barnes & Noble, it appeared indies were on their way to becoming extinct. Only the iconic ones — such as Powell’s in Portland, City Lights in San Francisco, Politics and Prose in DC, and the Strand in New York — would survive.

Fortunately, those who predicted doomsday were flat-out wrong. Indies are thriving. Rather than closing their doors, they have grown from 1,600 locations in 2009 (the industry’s low point) to more than 2,500 today.

Some of these mom-and-pop stores have registered as nonprofits; others run like nonprofits by using an advisory board and setting aside funds to give to schools. The modern indie bookstore has created a blueprint for success: Establish a loyal customer base; sell items beyond books, such as greeting cards, retro coasters, and colorful tote bags; and give back to the community.

Yet, a new crisis awaits, and it has nothing to do with Amazon. The nemesis: those pesky Friends’ stores.

Where else can you buy a hardcover of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award-winning Between the World and Me (2015), Emily Chang’s Brotopia (2018), or Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (2016) for a buck? (Atwood’s much-awaited The Testaments, which came out last fall, will surely hit Friends’ shelves before long.)

Mega-selling authors like John Grisham, Danielle Steele, and E.L. James (of Fifty Shades of Grey fame) are commonly found in Friends’ sales. Their books are mass-produced, and readers often donate the latest in a series before moving on to the always-coming-soon next one.

Although some Friends’ stores demand a few extra dollars for newer titles, many do not differentiate when it comes to publication date. Whether the book was released in 1949 or 2019 is irrelevant. It’s all about moving inventory so they can make room for the endless boxes and bags being dropped off.

To be sure, authors and publishers benefit from Friends of the Library. Some of the funds raised — which can range annually from a few thousand to upward of $100K — are used to purchase new books for a library’s collection. In addition, the Friends sponsor author talks, which promote book sales.

But how can independent bookstores compete with Friends’ shops that don't pay rent, wages, or even utilities? Simply put, they can’t.

Still, from what I have observed, indies haven’t confronted this ongoing dilemma openly, perhaps fearing backlash. But how could they not have disdain for a nearby Friends’ bookstore? The latter undercuts them, pure and simple.

Is there a solution? Maybe Friends’ stores should rethink their fundraising methods and find ones that don’t infringe on the livelihood of a fellow essential player in the literary ecosystem. Perhaps they should commit only to offering books published prior to, say, 2010. Something, anything, other than selling recent releases for pennies.

If change isn’t forthcoming, volunteers working to sustain their neighborhood library might, ironically, be hastening the demise of their neighborhood bookstore.

Adam Henig’s writings have appeared in Time, Tampa Bay Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog, History News Network, and BlackPast. The author of two biographies, he is currently working on his third book, Watergate’s Forgotten Hero: Frank Wills, Night Watchman. Find him on Twitter at @AdamHenig.

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