March 27, 2014
The Times is just trolling indie booksellers now, and it’s sort of brilliant
by Dustin Kurtz
Yesterday was a banner day for bookstore-concerned trolling in the pages of the Gray Lady.
First Julie Bosman broke the news to a rapt readership that rent for retail spaces in Manhattan is rather high, and that most bookstores do not enjoy paying high rents. Then, in a seeming bid to somehow be even more On It than Bosman’s already incredibly On It piece, the Times asked six contributors to weigh in on the question How Can Bookstores Stay Alive?
The result was a pitch-perfect act of trollery designed to make every indie bookseller out there lose their damned mind. It was a real masterpiece.
The beautiful needling began with the very title. The Times wasn’t asking people Why is Your Local Bookstore So Good? or even the more honest What Could Bookstores Do to Cater to the Peculiarly Awful Type of Person Who Reads These Weird Opinion Page Debates We Run? No, they asked how bookstores could stay alive because, as anyone who reads the Times knows, bookstores are dying. I’ve written before about how harmful this premise is to the survival of bookstores—the gist being that after the salvific urge wanes, the mental frames for ‘needs saving’ and ‘already gone, so don’t bother’ are basically the same. More importantly, the premise is incredibly frustrating to booksellers. This was professional grade trolling, and it only got better.
The contributors to the discussion included some names for which I have a wealth of respect–Emily Powell of Powell’s, Daniel Power of powerHouse, and Laura Hazard Owen, a tireless and sharp industry reporter. But it’s as if even these voices were given strict instructions to play a caricature of one of the boring, immediately familiar roles in the debate over bookstores. It’s as if all six of the conversants had been invaded by some kind of skinwalker, desperately throwing out platitudes and vague anecdotes in an effort to pass scrutiny.
Trevor Ingerson wrote on Twitter “It’s a BEA panel of an article if I’ve ever seen one.”
Every one of the bookselling conference tropes was in evidence, and each one carefully tuned to make a bookseller scream, spittle flecking their monitor, “I do that! We all already do that!” These things were buffed to a generic, useless perfection.
Work with libraries!, wrote Owen. Hold events and post about them online!, wrote Power. Vinyl records! wrote a guy who sells vinyl records. Powell somehow managed to say nothing at all. It really was incredible.
And then of course there was Naveen Srivatsav, the piece’s token Books Are Obsolete Guy. By the time he got to telling everyone to be like the Apple store and “like a petting zoo but for books,” it barely mattered what he actually wrote. He was so clearly playing the role of That Guy, he could have been typing ‘watermelonwatermelon’ and it would have had the same effect. That effect, of course, was to troll booksellers with assurance and panache.
I don’t mean to say that these writers weren’t being sincere. Or even that their suggestions weren’t good. They surely were. But they were also so vague and basic as to be useless for booksellers. And that’s the crux of the piece. It’s not for an audience of booksellers. It’s for an audience of people sitting near booksellers, listening to their sputter and rage as they read the thing. Like all the best trollery, its aim was to cause joy and entertainment—just not in those it purports to help.
Even though this piece did make me rage at my desk while I read it, it’s reassuring to know that the standards of excellence remain strong at the Times, both in reportage and in pieces like this: trollery of the highest order, targeting those who deserve it least.
Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.