Earlier this week I happened upon a story in the Windy City Times about trouble at a Chicago bookstore called Women & Children First.
I had just finished a three-year stint at a terrific independent bookstore in Los Angeles when I first moved to Chicago in 2004, and I was inspired at the time to pen a post about what I was looking for in a bookstore in my adopted city: “one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.”
As it turns out, upon landing in Chicago the nearest bookstore, the only one in walking distance, was Women & Children First. Though the store’s focus is pretty clear from its name, it was still a surprise to me when I discovered that the store almost exclusively carries books written by women. It could not then be the bookstore I was looking for, one that gave me a comprehensive view of what mattered “at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood,” though I did go there on many occasions. Still, it occurs to me that if an independent bookstore cannot satisfy me – pretty much the target consumer for indies – then it will have trouble in a world where few are interested in the unique experience independents have to offer.
At the same time, I find niche bookstores fascinating. There were a few in Los Angeles that I knew of, and in London, where bookstores are (or were – I was there several years ago) clustered together on side streets, one can hop from store to store as one might stroll from section to section in a shopping mall Borders.
But the lone niche bookstore seems a lot to me like a lone tree after the rest of the forest has been clear cut. They are even more vulnerable than indies with a general focus to the forces that are making it tough for indies to survive. If there had been two or three other bookstores nearby Women & Children First, each peddling books of a particular genre or focus, I would likely have patronized W&CF much more frequently.
Sadly, I don’t expect we’ll see many colonies of niche bookstores cropping up in our cities. I would guess the economics of the book industry don’t support it. Still, there are many niche bookstores still around, quite of few of which are virtually unknown even to avid book people. They are worth seeking out as they are the unique and rare oddities within the literary ecology.
I’d love to hear about niche bookstores in the comments if anyone wants to tell us about some of their favorites.