Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Need for a New Declaration of Independence

Although I do not meet the qualifications of being a "hipster," in general, I am a fan of all things independent. I like "indie" movies like All the Real Girls, although it is increasingly difficult to determine what an independently financed, produced, and distributed film is. Particularly when studios like Miramax are bought by Disney, when even Warner Bros. has a "Warner Independents" label, and well, there is no longer a big studio system to not be a part of. Just a bunch of big corporations and subsidiaries, which makes me think a knowledge of Corporations law would be useful in determining what is an indie movie exactly. Independently financed films may still be picked up by bigger production studios, and it's kind of that problem of knowing exactly what's "Made in the USA" when the parts were manufactured in Indonesia--at what point does an indie pic lose its independence? I have the same problem with music. Although my tastes in recent years have veered back to classic rock, old school R&B and jazz, at one time I identified with the "adult alternative rock" demographic. You know, at the age of 15, rockin' out to Paul Westerberg and Warren Zevon. But then there was this "indie music" thing--supposedly, I was still mainstream, man, and needed to listen to sub-pop and emo, not that corporate stuff. Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie, Rilo Kiley, this one band that is a combination of characters and digits that I can't remember--but are they all indie? I read that Rilo Kiley signed with a major label--I think it was Atlantic.

So what does it mean to be independent? Is there no Declaration for this new age? Does independence signify financial independence from the blood money of corporate America? If so, man, do teenagers have a lot to learn about corporations, parent-subsidiaries, and underwriting. Unless you're burning CDs off your laptop and selling them for $7 on the street corner (and as long as your father, employed at Merck didn't pay for said laptop)--I wonder if anyone can honestly say that their work is purged of corporate taint. I don't mean to make fun of earnest, anti-label, anti-industry artists. But I just wonder how much their beliefs track the reality of how things work, how they are made, and how they are paid for. You might shop at Target rather than Walmart (as I do), but it's not like I naively believe that my $10 sweater was made by well-treated, well-compensated workers. It may be that it is so. But I don't take the pains to investigate the labor practices behind every garment I buy. It's that whole ignorance is bliss thing. I'm not proud of it. But it's a psychic cost I've internalized, since the alternative of buying more expensive, but guaranteed sweatshop-free clothing (e.g. American Apparel) is an economic choice beyond my means.

I have several liberal friends, far more liberal than I, who do investigate the labor practices behind each corporation they choose to support with their consumption. It's not always easy to be so vigilant. I have caught them wearing school sweatshirts, which were screenprinted who knows where on sweatshirts originally made who knows how. My point is, with every price saved, there is a certain cost internalized in the transaction. Whether you are really rich and conservative buying those over-priced bookends from The Bombay Company to lend your library an exotic flavor, or a poor graduate student buying a shirt on sale at Old Navy, there are things you just wouldn't rather know, and don't ask when you buy these things. The rich guy doesn't ask if these bookends, made of resin to look like ivory, are worth $5 rather than $75. He shops at this rather pricey specialty boutique. He figures, "I like the look, I like the theme of the store, I like shopping here"--so he'll pay what the store asks, no questions asked. Similarly, the cash-strapped student will say "I can't afford to buy American Apparel, I don't know how to make my own clothes, I'm stuck in the Midwest and I need some polar fleece"--and off he will go to Old Navy. What we internalize when we save or spend to obtain some benefit (elegant colonial style decor, warmth) is the cost of our own blessed ignorance.

And that's a cost I make every month, to the tune of about $25-100. I read a lot. A lot of the stuff I read is free (well, if you have access to a school supplied Westlaw account) via Findlaw or SSRN, but a lot of it isn't. Some months I am lucky and the only things I want to buy are cheap paperbacks. Most of the time, I am not so lucky. I don't order $100 casebooks by the truck load, but I do order books by legal scholars, which typically run $25-45. It's not even shopping to me. It's just a monthly bill, like my student loans. You can't even find these books at your average bookstore--I mean, who reads "The Price of Federalism" for fun? They're not even at campus bookstores. So I go online. Straight to Amazon and sometimes to Powell's. And sometimes, I save up to 30%. When I buy stuff you can find at your local bookstore, like Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake or Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, I can sometimes save up to 40%! I get free shipping on orders over $25, no tax, and books in the mail. It's pretty awesome. If you're a bibliophile, it's like unwrapping a present each month.

And the cost internalized in that transaction is my blessed ignorance about whether I have helped to contribute to the death of yet another independent bookstore. (and the cost of privacy, with all the cookies and such) But I wonder--is that necessarily a bad thing? Tyler Cowen, writing for Slate, refuses to mourn for dying breed of independent bookstores:

Ever since the rise of the book superstore in the 1990s, we have been flooded with lamentations for the rapidly disappearing independent booksellers—cool hang-outs where the staff knows something about literature, the owners select each title with care, and bearded patrons sit at crowded coffee tables, talking about Jack Kerouac or the latest translation of Tolstoy. Thanks to the indies, it is thought, high-quality but inaccessible books can slowly build their reputations through reader word-of-mouth and eventually take the literary world by storm. This is what people fear is disappearing forever; just last week the famed Cody's of Berkeley announced it is shutting down because of Internet and superstore competition. But does this idealized vision ring true? What exactly are we losing with the passing of the independent bookstore?

Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case. There are similar phenomena in the world of indie music fans ("Top 40 has to be bad") and indie cinema, which rebels against stars and big-budget special effects. In each case the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest. But when it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems. The superstores' scale allows them to carry many more titles, usually several times more, than do most of the independents; so if you're looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore.

But bolstering the indies will not reverse any of these trends, nor are the chain stores to blame for their spread. The indies themselves aren't always paragons of cultural virtue, either. One indie owner quoted in Reluctant Capitalists notes that he keeps book prices high "not from greed but as a way of reflecting what he sees as their worth as cultural artifacts." (On that basis, how can he possibly sell a paperback volume of Proust for $15.00?) Many of the smaller indies have financed themselves by selling, in a separate part of the store, pornography; indie stores are not all intellectual powerhouses like Powell's in Portland, considered by many to be the best bookstore in the United States. For better or worse, they are commercial entities just like the superstores. In this case, being David to the superstores' Goliath doesn't always mean that they ought to win out.

This battle between the big chain and the little shop around the corner was dramatized in the deplorable romantic comedy You've Got Mail (if you've seen the original The Shop Around the Corner, you'd agree). While I do lament the loss of iconic Cody's on Telegraph (fond memories of a road trip there), it's kind of hard to mourn for the tiny bookshops in the tourist cities bordering (or 15 miles away from) my own city. It's not a big city in Orange County, CA--a typical sleepy suburb of about 75,000. Not big at all, but not so small either. Before Barnes and Noble came to town, there were two main bookstores that serviced the area: a tiny Crown books and a slighty bigger Bookstar. Barnes and Noble shut those stores down within the year--but I don't really miss those stores. I hung out in the library a lot as a kid. I would just go there and get a box of books, or sat and read the encyclopedia. And although I still see a lot of kids hang out at the public library, I see that a lot hang out at the Barnes and Noble too. Mostly doing homework, but I can't help but hope that being around all those books is good for them. I'm glad that there are chairs and tables for kids to hang out right next to the Dostoevsky.

The cache about indie bookstores is that you get the weird clerk who introduces you to Rainier Maria Rilke and David Sedaris. But there are plenty of ways to get that feeling of cultural superiority of being "in the know," hip, widely read, etc. Cowen encourages those iconoclastic readers to stop looking at the obvious stands and start going to different sections, climbing up on footstools, and combing discard piles by other readers. Go to the library, he says. That's all good advice. I've done well enough without the quirky clerk--I read a lot of book reviews from several sources--The NY Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, Slate, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Harper's Monthly....I read more reviews than I do books per month, but I keep a notebook of titles and authors I want to read. I'll eventually get to some of them before I die. I read weird literary magazines like n+1 or The Believer. I listen to NPR. I hang out at campus bookstores when I'm on a campus and go to the "Friends of the Library" sales at public libraries. Thus, even when much of my bookbrowsing is virtual and sedentary, I still manage to get by, stay knowledgeable, and get my 30% discount and free shipping with no tax.

If an economist like Tyler Cowen says that it's not such a big deal to lose an independent bookstore, and that it makes more economic sense to shop at the superstore, what's the big deal? Again, I reiterate: that damned independent streak that afflicts so many bourgeois Americans who have not really interrogated what being independent actually means. I don't claim to be immune to this. It is an elitist affectation, a desire for cultural and intellectual superiority. It is almost a moral issue--because what we consume, and where consume it really matters in this well, consumeristic society. Personally, I have never felt that good buying something for full (not to mention sometimes marked up!) price at an indie bookstore. Knowing just a bit about how publishing companies give advances, farm from book packagers, and who owns said publishing companies makes me believe that no matter where I buy my book, some corporate blood money is in the transaction.

So what I propose is that we need a new declaration of independence for independently minded people in this globalized, interconnected, corporate world. I'm not the one to write it. I'm just not independent enough, being enslaved to my discounts, my blessed ignorance, and my general cynicism about it all.