Saturday, April 22, 2006

Shopping for Community: Miller Article

In this article, Miller considers “the use and meaning of the community ideal by examining how it has been manifested in both the rhetoric of the book trade, and the activities and promotional efforts of booksellers” (p. 387). She begins by giving an overview of what is meant by community—the different definitions that have emerged and debate that surrounds the “community ideal.” She argues that even with its myriad definitions and a variety of criteria as to what “true” community entails, it remains an ideal that is very much a part of the American psyche. According to Miller, within social science circles a debate exists as to the social benefits that can come out of achieving the community ideal. On one side there are the “communitarians” who argue that “building a sense of community is necessary for restoring moral purpose to the collective life in the United States” (p. 389). As a society Americans have become extremely individualistic, and therefore we need to move back to this sense of community and working for the common good. Critics of this theory claim that the community ideal is not easily achieved because it often demands a certain level of conformity, and if someone does not fit the values or beliefs of the community, they are excluded.

After setting up this framework, Miller provides a brief history of bookselling in the U.S.—from early bookstores that existed as a sort of community center, to small intellectually elite bookstores, to the emergence of mall bookstores, the resurgence or backlash of the independent bookstores and finally the replacement of mall stores with stand-alone superstores. Following this history she examines ways that bookstores are linked to communities. This includes things such as author/book talks, storytime for children, and singles events. In addition, the inclusion of cafés in many bookstores and comfy chairs make them ideal places to hang out and meet up with other people. In looking at these connections, Miller explores how successfully independent versus superstores achieve the community ideal. In the final part of the article, she looks at the limitations of viewing bookstores as a means of developing a sense of community, particularly given that in the end bookstores are a business and their ultimate goal is making a profit.

Some questions to think about:
Do you agree or disagree with the argument that chain bookstores cannot truly play a role in reaching the “community ideal”? Why or why not? Can independent bookstores play a role? What connections do you see between some of the challenges independent bookstores face in light of the growth of superstores and the challenges libraries face? Do they face similar challenges or are there differences? Even though you do not have to buy anything when going into a bookstore, ultimately they appeal most to those that can buy books or other products in the stores. How does this compare to libraries? Do different sectors of the community use libraries versus bookstores or do the same people use both? Are libraries a more equitable public space than bookstores?

As a side note, one thing I found interesting when reading this article is the fact that the author is from Canada and she does not make any mention of Canada—her focus is on the United States. I was living in Canada from 2000-2002 and during that time the two largest bookstores in Canada, “Chapters” and “Indigo Books and Music” were going through a merger—“Chapters” was in financial trouble and “Indigo” was going to rescue it from completely going out of business. These bookstores are superstores like “Borders” and “Barnes and Noble”. There was a great deal of press at the time of the merger. Some people saw it as a bad thing because it would lead to further homogenization of bookstores in Canada. Others thought it might lead to better competition and actually benefit independent booksellers. Overall many in the Canadian publishing industry and many independent booksellers supported the merger because they feared that if Indigo didn’t buy out Chapters then an American company, like Borders or Barnes and Noble would. This, they feared, would hurt the Canadian publishing industry because these American companies would be less likely to carry Canadian titles. An interesting twist to the community-bookstore link.


Katie Hanson said...

One thing that I notice about superstores as compared to the independent bookstores is simply the location of many of them. If we look at places like B&N and Borders here in Madison, they're both placed in areas that are generally not really pedestrial friendly. To my knowledge, these stores don't occupy existing storefront sorts of establishments--they're always located in shopping mall settings. It just strikes me that anytime you have to drive to a big box store (be it B&N, Home Depot or Target) there is the sense of isolation from the human-scale level of say, a typical downtown (maybe even with storefront booksellers). You may go to a Barnes and Noble to meet for a book group, but would you go there to know your own particular community? It just doesn't seem like the likliest place to go for a stroll or to hang out...

Kristin said...

"Are libraries a more equitable public space than bookstores?"

I really want to say yes to this question because I feel it should be true. Unfortunately, I cannot. The reality of the economic divide plays itself out in libraries too though perhaps to a slightly lesser degree. The same people, who might be turned out of a bookstore for inappropriate attire, are also turned out of libraries. Those without an address cannot check books out of a library any more than those without money could take books out of the bookstore. Those with money have access to more materials. In my experience, it is fairly unusual for libraries to have TVs, VCRs, DVD players, and CD players available for use by patrons. Those without outside access to these things do not have access to all of the materials.

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

Katie's comments on the location aspect are quite interesting. The article discussed community and bookstores, but, as Katie points out, it seems awful hard to get that community sense when you cannot get to the bookstore without spending 35 minutes in traffic swearing at the other drivers'. Whenever I am in Border's or B&N, I feel like I am in a supermarket with books instead of groceries. Thers is no sense of community, nor is there any warmth or real cheer. The same feeling goes for many libraries I have visited recently. The sense of community must come to those who are there each Tuesday for their Oprah bookclub meeting, but it doesn;t seem to come out to the casual user.