But the resignation, and the weeks expecting every shift picked up as a favor to be the very last one, together with all the research and soul-searching leading up to it, have precipitated a fairly radical crystalization in my thinking about a number of things, chief among them the current (rotten) state of capitalism and the possible outlines of some alternatives. Corvus is a rather imperfect attempt to put some of these new understandings into practice.
But I should be clear: I do not "hate" the company I work for. There is really not much point. Some of my friends take a certain amount of pleasure in the thought that one of the Big Three book chains might fold, but, honestly, the only thing that could be much worse right, for bookbuyers and the publishing industry, than the present concentration, would be the sort of near-monopoly conditions if there was only a Big Two (particularly since one of those two, Amazon, isn't a bookstore in any meaningful sense, and gets its illusion of selection from its marketplace sellers.) And all of the bass-ackwards nonsense that have made the job miserable are really quite logical, given a remarkably bass-ackwards context. Righteous indignation and enlightened consumerism aren't going to address the crisis in the bookworld which is already pretty well upon us. Pity the poor big-box bookstore, at least a little bit, as centralization continues to have its way with it. They don't have much choice but to screw the little guys, and they would rather not, if they could help it, because if they concentrate their "key titles" too much, there are some even-bigger-boxes that are going to have them for lunch. Product diversity is the specialty store's friend, as is a variety of suppliers, but the "big-box specialty store" is a slave to two highly incompatible masters, economies of scale and breadth of offerings.
The upshot of all of this is that the big-box bookstores are committed, and in important senses have to be committed, to a dangerous strategy of putting their eggs in damn few baskets, all the while hoping it's not so few that they simply lose any purpose as a "specialty" retailer. Publishers and distributors are along for the ride, or left in the dust. And while some small bookstores have managed to wrangle a little rent-relief from desperate landlords or extra credit from desperate vendors, they're not really even in the same game. At a small shop I was affiliated recently, there was a belief that Ingram, the main new book distributor, had singled them out for changes in terms because of some bad publicity. Maybe. But more likely they had simply dropped below the business threshold where it made any sense for the Big One of distributors to mess around with them. Economies of scale eventually commit you to certain kinds of transactions and concerns, and make others simply untenable. And from the perspective of the small bookstore, those same concerns can change the business you are in so completely that a relatively complete reinvention is necessary.
I failed to reinvent in my own business, despite some concerted attempts. I found it necessary to leave the collective I was involved with when it became clear that they were collectively incapable of reinventing their business, in part because they weren't prepared to deal with it as a business, as part of an industry, etc. I still haven't solved the problem of how to restructure a brick-and-mortar bookstore sufficiently to much more than dream about reentering that fray, but I think I have some relatively clear ideas about what is presently wrong with the industry, and how we might begin a reinvention from the publishing and distribution side. The beginning of the trick, it seems to me, is to reintroduce product diversity, and to do so in a way that is both sustainable for the new producers and affordable for retailers and consumers who we have to assume are straitened circumstances.
To be continued. . .