Peter Cowdin, who will speak on the future of independent bookstores at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, loves to hammer on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble CEOs by sending them imaginary e-mails on his Web site (www.readingreptile.com). There's something ungratifying about the jokes, though. "It's too easy to knock Barnes & Noble anymore," he reflects. "The real heartbreaking thing is that people put up with it."
Put up with what? People who know nothing about books selling books. Cowdin often hears of superstores' sending customers off with misinformation instead of books because clerks rely on computer listings instead of a love of literature. For example, a customer once told him that The True Story of the Three Little Pigs: By A. Wolf was out of print. Knowing this statement to be false, Cowdin asked where she had heard that rumor. She recounted her story, which involved going to a superstore and inquiring about the book, at which point the clerk searched the database for an author named "Wolf." The clerk didn't come up with anything because "Wolf" is part of the book's title. Without any other way of tracking information, the clerk told the customer that the book was out of print.
The chains do know how to handle some books, though: for example, the Harry Potter series. Cowdin remembers his excitement after reading the first volume, but by the time the fourth volume came out, his enthusiasm had dwindled. He compares it with the Oliver Stone movie JFK. "They do the whole JFK conspiracy thing, and then after an hour and a half, they go to court and retell the whole story." Cowdin smiles. "That's like the fourth Harry Potter."
Frustrated Suess lovers can find solace at Reading Reptile, at least. Cowdin takes note of a kid, maybe 3 years old, sprawled on his back on the rug, his eyes at half-mast. After commenting on the oddity of being a children's bookstore in a bar district, Cowdin extends his welcome to toddling children and toddling adults alike. "If you're ever feeling scared and alone," he remarks, looking affectionately at the child, "we'll take you in."