Parallel universe

October 24, 2007

I like to follow the ongoing discussions about the evolution of bookstores and comic shops (or Big Boxes versus specialists, if you like), so I thought this article in The New York Times was fascinating. It looks at the existing state of Germany’s book market – where small shops and big chains coexist peacefully and seem to thrive in each other’s company:

“Germany’s book culture is sustained by an age-old practice requiring all bookstores, including German online booksellers, to sell books at fixed prices. Save for old, used or damaged books, discounting in Germany is illegal. All books must cost the same whether they’re sold over the Internet or at Steinmetz, a shop in Offenbach that opened its doors in Goethe’s day, or at a Hugendubel or a Thalia, the two big chains.

“What results has helped small, quality publishers like Berenberg. But it has also — American consumers should take note — caused book prices to drop. Last year, on average, book prices fell 0.5 percent.”

Alas, that delicate, consumer-friendly balance might be threatened by recent developments in neighboring Switzerland:

“Just across the border, the Swiss lately decided to permit the discounting of German books — a move that some in the book trade here fear will eventually force Germany itself to follow suit, transforming a diverse and book-rich culture into an echo of big-chain America.”

While I enjoy bargain-hunting as much as anyone, I do find the description of Germany’s book market kind of utopian. I’m still bitter about the closing of a mystery book shop in Dupont Circle, and few things make me depressed in quite the same way as those intermittent articles about independently owned, sometimes specialty book shops shuttering because they can’t compete with the seven or eight Barnes and Noble and Borders stores that have opened up.

Of course, I’m a total hypocrite, ignoring these socialist leanings whenever a coupon shows up in the mail. And general principle couldn’t keep me from laughing and laughing at Meg Ryan’s misfortunes in You’ve Got Mail, but I don’t think that had anything to do with her character’s profession.

Still, the article is well worth a read for a glimpse at another market approach to book sales, the competing interests of culture and economics, and lots of other related issues.