"Humanity Over Technology": The Stucky Plan to Save Bookstores

Bravo to Janaka Stucky, whose new article in Poetry on struggling independent bookstores is both the most sensible and inspiring thing I’ve read on the subject. Stucky concedes what everyone in the industry knows, that a price war with Amazon is one small bookstores cannot win. Reasoning that these stores must therefore fight on different turf, he offers some concrete suggestions: establish a lively Web presence, feature expertly curated staff selections, and above all, host more events—that is, become a hub not just for reading material but for readings.


While not radically original, Stucky's advice is lucidly explained through anecdotes from his own experience (as the publisher of Black Ocean Press, he works frequently with indie bookshops). And where most book-business articles would rehash their theses in a neat concluding paragraph, Stucky builds instead to a rousing and unexpected finish. Since the Amazon Wars are an unusual topic for Poetry magazine, I might have seen this coming, but I didn’t:

People who read poetry are the unsung customer base for independent bookstores: they are avid readers, they love books as physical objects, they will religiously attend author readings, they read books on a variety of subjects, and they buy more books annually than anyone else I know. By catering to the type of person who reads poetry, these successful bookstores have perhaps unwittingly remained focused on what devoted patrons of bookstores really value: variety over homogeneity, literature over media, humanity over technology, and community over price…

If bookstores can learn to embrace these odd readers as secret representatives of the type of person who’s at the core of their customer base, rather than get sucked into a doomed downward spiral of price slashing on the latest best-selling hardcover, they will remain relevant and attractive to the customers they need in order to survive. Poetry, the least profitable and most esoteric of all the genres, can save the bookstore.

You can accuse Stucky of being self-serving or self-congratulatory—and can accuse me of the same, since I’m an MFA poetry student—but to me this rings absolutely true. More broadly, I think independent bookstores must seek their core customer base in the products of the modern creative writing boom. Some numerical context will help here: last year an estimated 1400 students graduated with MFAs in poetry, compared with around 700 in 2001. That’s about 10,000 over the past decade. Now include all other genres (fiction, memoir, etc.), and you’ve got at least double to triple that number.

Combine this with writers outside of programs, and you’re looking at a vast (and growing) pool of younger people not only interested but potentially invested in the bookstore experience. Like Prairie Lights and other outfits that thrive in prominent MFA communities, small bookstores everywhere need to greet these writers with open arms. Thousands of them would be willing to offer live entertainment, in the form of readings, to as many local bookstores as their time and travel budget allow. They would do so not for pay but for the opportunity to promote books, which they’ve typically published through small presses like Stucky’s—presses which in turn are finding new ways to survive thanks to print-on-demand technology, social media outreach, and, as Stucky describes, carefully cultivated ties with select stores.

In other words, the salvation of the independent bookstore is closely linked to the salvation of the independent publisher and the independent writer. Through the enhanced connections made possible by—what else?—the Web, this already cozy relationship can and must become an exuberant ménage à trois.

[Image courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, user eflon.]

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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