CHARTWELL BOOKSELLERS At 30: Blood, Toil, Triumph and The Art of Being Out of Style
Winston Churchill would have been 108 years-old on April 11, 1983; the day thirty years ago that Chartwell Booksellers – my tiny Churchill-centric bookshop – opened for business in midtown Manhattan. It was a Monday. The following Wednesday, April 20, we formally celebrated with a champagne reception at the store.
It really is a kick-in-the-head milestone to have survived as an independent bookstore into this digital age. Chartwell Booksellers started without a computer, but with two typewriters – one manual, one electric. 30 years later it lives on, worldwide, via email and the internet. The manual typewriter, however, still works.
“Being an old and old-fashioned animal,” Churchill conceded on his 80th birthday in 1954, “I am no enthusiast for the TV age, in which I fear mass thought and action will be taken too much charge of by machinery, both destructive and distracting.” I like to think that we proudly perpetuate at Chartwell Booksellers Churchill’s technological wariness; while yet imagining that Mr. Churchill just might have appreciated our website. Certainly, he would have found hands-on satisfaction among the 100% non-digital books that pack our premises in the Park Avenue Plaza building at 55 East 52nd Street.
When I first opened my little corner of obsolescence, lo, so many years ago, my near competitors were Fifth Avenue “carriage trade” (ah, such a bygone phrase) book establishments named Brentano, Scribner (pictured here) and Doubleday. These grand, long-running enterprises had rich histories in the bookselling business (all three had been veritable company stores for venerable book publisher parents). At the moment of Chartwell’s emergence in 1983, each was in the process of being acquired and repackaged into interchangeable, mall-based, chain brands. Leached of all individuality, they were thus leveraged, one-by-one, into extinction.
In their wake came Barnes & Noble, another hoary bookselling name bankrolled by Wall Street into a real estate consuming colossus with Cosa Nostra-like bulk purchasing tentacles. I confess, at the time, I really thought that Barnes & Noble’s commercialization of shelf placement and institutionalization of the on-site coffee bar might spell the end for Chartwell Booksellers. It did not. Barnes & Noble today is less of a threat than ever. As for B&N’s now-departed chain co-conspirators – B. Dalton, Walden Books and Borders – to mention them at this late date is just redundant.
Amazon is nothing but their bastard heir. The formula followed by this new bookselling bully is the very same blueprint of brute monopoly. The end-product is not literature but consolidation. It is an end-product that Amazon’s suppliers (“publishers,” if you will) know well. Over the course of my thirty years as a bookseller, I’ve watched this once diverse industry metastasize into a monochromatic corporate mass that today cries out for Amazon to put it out of its misery.
According to epitaph-writing business writers – from Bloomberg Businessweek to the New York Times Business Section – “the book” is done, at least as a corporate commodity. This, I believe, is actually far better news than one might imagine for readers (the flesh and blood kind) for whom books remain uncommodifiable objects of enlightenment. Books (the paper and glue kind) may be dropping off of Wall Street’s Bloomberg screens but they are not physically going anywhere. So, too, booksellers (we blood and guts kind), who persist in hawking our cumbersome wares from actual stacks on actual shelves.
My point, I guess, is that bookstores like Chartwell Booksellers have a better chance to survive and even flourish precisely because books are becoming passe. Books can no longer sustain the avaristic attention of the megalopolists. Yes, the independent bookstore attrition wrought first by Barnes & Noble, and now being mopped up by Amazon, has been excruciating. But once these two behemoths stand alone (as they basically do now, with Amazon clearly predominating), the battlefield they bestride is beside the point. Books made of paper simply won’t be worth enough cash to merit the monoliths’ manipulations.
Perhaps e-books will. But so what. Readers of e-books need never set foot in a bookstore again. You might say that the Kindle and its kin have set us free. My very humble prediction is that books will continue to be sold in small quantities and in small bookstores to the small number of readers who prize them. Small publishers will continue to make these small, awkward objects in small but sufficient numbers. And small independent booksellers will revive, selling their wares in sustainable quantities that Amazon cannot even be bothered to count.
“We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival,” said Winston Churchill.
And here we are.