I keep trying to write this for a long time. These are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. Fragments from a late night letter to a close friend. It’s nothing new. These kinds of stories are all over the Internet. This is not a farewell letter. It is rather a letter of anticipation.
Long time ago, the list price of the book acknowledged each and every single creative input in the bookselling eco-system. It paid authors, publishers, editors, graphic designers, paper mills, truck drivers, printers, warehouses, distributers, booksellers, you name it.
Today, the list price has totally lost its meaning and has mutated into a mere concept. It is a very useful psychological tool in the hands of online retailers and a heavy burden around the necks of independents.
Things started to go wrong with the arrival of corporate capital. Small, low profit publishing enterprises merged into giant media behemoths. Bookstores grouped into chains. In order to win more customers and increase their turnovers, bookstore chains started to sell lead titles at heavy discounts.
Emerging online retailers took it even further. They make money by losing money. It is beyond the realm of my understanding.
Especially now, with the disappearance of the real (books), the business model for a small independent bookshop is irretrievably lost. Even with ethical consumption, author events, reduced prices, aggressive social media presence, local community support, what am I forgetting? – It is either not going to work or it is going to be very difficult.
I remember this customer, some five years ago. He bought a book, expressed compliments and engaged in a short conversation. When he heard that this is how I plan to support my family he told me I was insane. He was well acquainted with the local book-related realities.
I thought my insanity will shine and provide a power source for Behemot’s lighthouse. And it did. For a while. For this I thank you sincerely.
However, times have changed. Perplexed by obvious benefits of online ordering, pressed by harsh realities of recession, the local community finds it ever more difficult to support our small, independent bookshop. Behemot (the physical container of it) will close. Not this week. Not this month. But soon enough to think about it.
Here is a little true story from Prague. It stayed with me through all these years and still works within me, changing me slowly – like a worm in the wood.
It happened in the rainy summer of 2002. One-hundred-year flood devastated the city and affected lives of hundreds of thousands of people. For a few months sales fluctuated between none and very slow. We kept our opening hours like nothing had happened, but seldom did we sell a book or two. It was a very difficult time of spooky emptiness.
I was at home one afternoon and suddenly wondered how they were doing at the bookshop. So I called.
The telephone rang.
Denis was a philosopher of mixed Greek and Czech origins. He worked part time with us. He had that rare gift to hear things not yet spoken and see things not yet seen.
The phone rang.
Our telephones at the time didn’t have that incoming number display. So he couldn’t tell it was me who’s calling. And usually we answered our phone with the name of the bookshop followed by a “hello” or our first name. I would say “Anagram bookshop, Dean”. You know, the usual boring stuff. But Denis was unique.
The phone rang. He answered: “Továrna na sny, dobry den!”
He picked it from the thin air, right there, right then. But his message was clear: the bookshop he worked at could very well be described as a “Factory for Dreams”.
Thank you for sharing our dreams for the past six and a half years. Maybe we’ll meet again, perhaps in another dream.