Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops to Close

by Patrick on January 19, 2009

The City of Milwaukee is about to get a lot less interesting, with the announcement that Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops will close at the end of March after 80 plus years in existence. I’ve never been to their stores, as I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Milwaukee, but on the surface, it isn’t hard to see the similarities between Schwartz and Vroman’s. Both are old by today’s retail standards. Both have given a lot of money to local charities through our Gives Back programs (In fact, the numbers are remarkably similar). Both have pretty great blogs (or at least Schwartz does).

I hate eulogizing indie bookstores, but I’ll probably have to for awhile, with the economy listing badly. I found this heartfelt blog post, by bookseller Justin Riley, via the excellent, excellent blog The Inside Flap. I thought I’d excerpt a paragraph or two:

But then again, the prices on Amazon are so cheap. Why, you can save six whole dollars on that twenty dollar book. All it costs in return is the erosion of individuality and the closing of four bookstores (today; more to come) filled with a resource that you don’t miss until it’s gone.

So, there’s no way you can stop this. There’s no wand to wave and keep my bookshop open. What there is, however, is the choice (losing substance daily) to support the worthwhile endeavor of community and dialogue. I’d ask that every time you see a book for sale online, you question why the reviewer doesn’t have a link to BookSense [note: now Indiebound] (a collection of independent booksellers in America). When an author says “You can get my book on Amazon.”, ask them where else you can get it. Ask them if they plan on going on a book tour sponsored by Amazon. Ask them what other books their latest is bundled with on a website that tracks sales but not content or style.

Lance Fensterman, writing at the Medium at Large blog, had the following observation:

I was at the mall with the Editor-in-Chief yesterday looking to spend a gift card and I tuned to her and asked her how many of these chains will be out of business or in Chapter 11 by the end of this year. To take that a step further, how many people will care when they do close? Was there an outpouring from communities across the country when Linen’s N Things closed? What about Circuit City? Were little league teams wondering who will buy their jersey’s this year or schools wondering who will support them with fundraising voucher sales?

I suppose this is the cold comfort for the booksellers. At least they outlasted Circuit City. I think of this often when I hear of big box retailers going belly-up. They came and went, and we’re still here. It reminds me a bit of a section of David James Duncan’s The Brothers K. One of the Chance brothers, Everett, is living in exile in a tiny coastal town in British Columbia. The town bears a native name, but its dominant feature is a long dead paper mill, built by white people. Everett remarks that the natives had lived in that area for 10,000 years. They lived in harmony with nature — fishing, hunting, and logging. The area changed little, but it gave them what they needed to live. Then the white man came, built a paper mill and a town to go with it. Logged the area until it could no longer sustain it, then shut down the mill, packed up and left. All in the span of less than 200 years.

My coworker just remarked that the Harry W. Schwartz people were her favorite booksellers to see at bookseller gatherings like BEA and the ABA’s Winter Institute. They were fun and hip, and they were always doing something innovative. I’m not going to try to find all the times I linked to them on this blog because I did so frequently. I hope they continue writing The Inside Flap in some capacity. I hope the people there find jobs that fit their interests and talents. And I hope the people of Milwaukee realize what they are losing.