Slog tipper Michael wants to know what I think of this story:
The best-selling author James Patterson has started a program to give away $1 million of his personal fortune to dozens of bookstores, allowing them to invest in improvements, dole out bonuses to employees and expand literacy outreach programs.
I've been following this story, Michael, and I have mixed feelings about it. Of course, anything that keeps independent bookstores in business is a great thing. And lord knows Patterson could be using that money on much less worthy causes. But something about this makes me uneasy, and I can't quite put my finger on it.
Here's the thing: Bookstores aren't non-profits. They're businesses. And I think bad things start to happen when bookstores go down the "noble cause" route, by continually thanking their customers for shopping locally, and by lecturing customers about the difficulties of running a bookstore in 2014. If you're an independent bookstore, you should prove your worth, not talk about it. There are plenty of independent bookstores in Seattle that do good business by making themselves into essential destinations—by knowing more about the books than some algorithm, by providing additional services, and by becoming part of the fabric of their customer's lives. They do not earn customers by guilt-tripping them, or by hanging the threat of their closure over their customer's heads. (I've seen quite a few bookstores try this angle. Most of those bookstores are out of business now.) Of course their complaints about chain stores and online retailers are legitimate, but lecturing at customers isn't a great way to make customers feel welcome.
So if Patterson's money is used to renovate these stores into the kind of bookstores that can survive in the current economic climate, then I'm all for it. But I also don't want bookstores to get used to the thinking that a rich person is going to come along and make things right, or that a Kickstarter can save them. Let's not turn bookstores into lost causes, okay? Plenty of bookstores all over the country can and do make money without the help of some famous author ostentatiously dumping money all over them. Let's not make Patterson's endowment into a necessary part of the bookselling equation.