On July 21, 2007 at 12:01 AM, I paid the Mendocino Book Company in Ukiah, California $37.70 for my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. While I know this price puts the book out of reach for many low-income muggle families, our family found a way to include it in our budget this month. Why?
Reason 1. The real magic of Harry Potter.
Trivia question: How many books were printed in the first printing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (then called "Philosopher's Stone")? Answer: 1,000. So how did people find out about it? Word of mouth. And who passed the word? At first, independent booksellers. Then readers (mostly children) and soon after librarians, teachers, parents, everyone; then the advertising mucky-mucks got their paws on it. But it started with little local independent booksellers saying "Psst, hey, little girl, read this." Without them, who knows where Harry would be today? That's the real magic behind Harry's catapult to international fame. Although the mainstream literary industrial complex (B. Kingsolver's term) produces and promotes many good books, it also lets many good books fall through the cracks. We have our local independent booksellers to thank for peering between those cracks and picking those books up. These independents are literally closing their doors every day because online and big box booksellers are pushing them out of business. It is up to us to keep those doors open for them so that they can keep the doors to a heap of good reading open for us. Our indie bookstores put Harry on the map (and I don't mean the Marauder's Map) so we could find him! Don't you think the least we can do is give them our business?
Reason 2. What goes around comes around.
Frankly, I owe Ann Kilkenny (owner of Mendocino Book Co.). She hosted the successful launch of my fantasy adventure The Call to Shakabaz in January. While Barnes & Noble and Borders won't so much as nod in my direction, small independent bookstores here and there are discovering and hand selling my book and helping get the word out. Booksellers like Stephanie Vela at Black Oak Books in Berkeley (CA), Sharon Wright at Carol's Books in Sacramento (CA), Bob Spear at the Book Barn in Leavenworth (KS), Susan Sternberg at Alphabet Soup in Lawrenceville (NJ), and St. Helens Bookshop (OR), are making a big difference in my life as a first-time author, and in the lives of my young readers. I'm not a purist. I do shop online. But I also make a conscious effort to buy at Mendocino Book Co., especially something like HP7. It's the least I can do to show my appreciation to Ann and her staff. My survival and the survival of other new authors like myself depends on her survival and the survival of other indies.
Reason 3. It's about more than strawberries at the Farmer's Market.
There's a lot of talk about community and supporting community by buying local products (also a factor in reducing global warming), but let's put our money where our mouth is. Our local bookstore owner is a member of our community. She raised her children here. She sells cards and calendars made by local artists. She provides the service of selling tickets for local dance, music, and theater performances. She contributes to the local merchants' association and she is part of the local economy. Her modest earnings on our purchases do not go to a corporate headquarters outsourced to the Philippines. Ann's store doesn't have an upscale gourmet coffee bar, fancy pedestal tables, or pastries for sale; but the store has couches, chairs, and a welcoming atmosphere. While raising my children, I would often say "Meet me at the bookstore." The staff knew each of them by name and could suggest titles just for them. When we say it takes a village to raise a child, we must remember that part of that village is the local bookstore. So what better place to celebrate the publication of HP7? An online bookseller can't compete with the face-to-face, warm-and-human event of buying a great book in person, or, furthermore, celebrating the launch of that book with friends and acquaintances as part of a larger community. There is no substitute for the village.
Reason 4. Sharing the pie.
Apparently online booksellers will not make a profit on HP7 because of the rock bottom price they have offered. If the online booksellers want to slit their wrists on this one, let them, but you can be sure that someone is making a profit. No matter what price the online booksellers offer, they still have to pay the publisher a fixed amount per book based on the cover price. The publisher and the author are making a profit. I don't begrudge JK a penny of her millions. She has earned it. If you have read her books then you are probably as confident as I am that she will make good use of the money. But why are we begrudging our local bookstores this sterling opportunity to turn a profit? What other business would you prefer to support? We have a win-win situation here. The consumer gets a terrific product while stimulating the local economy. What's not to like about it? My only complaint is that the cover price is so high that low-income families can't afford the book.
Reason 5. Keeping a promise.
I have not heard of a single independent bookstore that leaked one word of HP7 before the street date. In fact, it seems the only leak in the world occurred through Deep Discount, an American online seller. I find it hard to believe that there are those who so desperately need to feel like a know-it-all that they sought and released the book or information about the book before the launch date. In the entire world, this happened only in the U.S. What does that say about our ability to delay gratification? (Shame on the newspapers who cashed in on the leak and printed advance reviews.) At midnight in Ukiah, people of all ages, Republicans and Democrats, children of every ethnicity and many religions (and speaking in more than one language) joined our counterparts throughout the Pacific time zone as we gleefully counted down together for the witching moment when the sealed boxes could be slit open. You know-it-alls missed out on that magic. I honor all the local bookstores, big and small, for keeping a promise and ensuring that those boxes remained sealed until the contractually agreed-upon time.
Reason 6. Sheer delight.
What fun to participate in the book launch celebration! I spent hours in the company of our small community's beautiful children while they celebrated the publication of a book. Our children, many dressed in costumes or with painted faces, talked heatedly about books with each other and adults, ate the abundant treats provided (many with Harry themes), played games at tables, watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, skateboarded in front of the store, entered contests to win prizes by answering HP-related quiz questions and coloring HP-related pictures, played word games, and filled in word puzzles. Does it get any better than this? July 21 should be declared International Reading Day in honor of the brilliant imagination of one woman in Edinburgh and her ability to unite the world for a weekend of peaceful reading. Now there's magic for you.
In among the crowd of children at our bookstore, I saw one particular child whose presence lifted my heart. Let's call her Sylvia. Last winter, my 15-year-old son told me that Sylvia (also 15) had been diagnosed with cancer and had only a few weeks to live. This news broke my heart, even though I have never spoken to Sylvia or her family. I have watched many children, such as Sylvia, grow up from a distance. I have seen her sing, dance, and act in local children's performances produced by a performing arts school in town ever since she was four years old. She is the only child of back-to-the-land hippies who spend most of their time on an isolated sheep ranch. I find the thought of these gentle, shy parents losing their only child devastating.
But I saw Sylvia at the bookstore. Thin and frail, with a black and red scarf hiding her bald head, she spoke quietly with friends who asked how she was doing and sat down with her to hear her tell them and listened and cared. These children were not afraid to face her or her struggle and to lend their support. When I left the bookstore at 12:20, I was elated not only because I had in my hands the final installment of Harry Potter, but also because Sylvia is still alive. I imagine her curled up in bed, reading. Perhaps JK's complex and deeply felt thoughts on death will comfort and assist her on her difficult journey. Whether or not she wins her battle with cancer (and I hope with all the hope in my heart that she will win), I am grateful that she stayed with us long enough to find out how Harry ends. I could not have bought the knowledge that Sylvia is still alive to read HP7 at an online bookseller. It is part of that community thing. The village. All my reasons aside, just the image of Sylvia reading HP7 all the way to the very last secret revealed was worth the $37.70 I paid for the book at my local, terrific, independent, community bookstore.