The Passive Voice comments on a Guardian piece on the difficulties of maintaining a bookstore in New York City. The headline is a bit misleading (The Guardian‘s fault not his). “Why are New York’s Bookstores Disappearing?” doesn’t quite represent current reality, where we are in fact experiencing a little bounce from what we all hope is a bottom. So, in 1950 we had 386 bookshops, while now we have 80? This has absolutely no relevance for the demand for books: in 1950 there was only one way to get a book. Not quite true today: yet more books are sold now than then.

The Passive Guy surprised and delighted me by launching in on a riff about rent control: “Following World War II, concerned about rising residential rents during the post-war boom, New York politicians established Rent Control on apartments, a complex set of laws and regulations limiting the maximum rent a landlord could charge a tenant while the tenant continued to live in the apartment. Rent control continues to this day, over 70 years following the emergency it was established to address. Another set of complex regulations, Rent Stabilization, governs the amount by which monthly rent can increase in almost a million rental properties. When an apartment is finally free from rent control, it becomes a rent-stabilized apartment. Among other things, these rent regulations can prevent landlords from tearing down an old apartment building to provide room for new residential or commercial space.”

But just as I was getting ready to cheer he comes up with this out-of-left-field assertion: “This type of regulation alone increases the costs of doing business in New York City, including the costs of operating a bookstore, by a huge margin.” Forcing landlords to charge lower rents increases the cost of doing business in New York? I guess the thought is that if they can’t rip off their residential tenants, landlords will naturally turn to ripping off their commercial ones? I’m no economist, but increasing the cost of doing business for landlords in New York seems to me to be a great idea. Do we really have to stick to rigid capitalist orthodoxy that the most benefit for everyone is to be found in allowing business to extract the most profit from our wallets which will allow unfettered competition to bring prices crashing back down again? In macro terms I dare say an almost convincing argument can be constructed, but if the best way forward for bookstores is extermination because of an inability to afford ever-increasing rents, enabling by their disappearance the eventual evolution of something different (better?), I say stop talking rubbish. My immediate concern is not the benefit of the U.S. population of 2119 or 2219 — I see today, and know that rising rents, while good for landlords, are bad for bookstores (and many other small businesses and individuals). I’d like to see rent control extended to small businesses too.

In a paragraph which The Passive Voice chose to omit The Guardian says “One of the causes of skyrocketing business rents is speculation: owners are forcing out tenants because buildings are sometimes more valuable empty. The goal is ‘to empty these buildings of rent-regulated residents and small businesses’, Moss says, so that they can be sold for profit or used as collateral with which to borrow money that is then invested elsewhere.” I’m not sure what it is about this process that can be held to be good for us.

The Passive Voice makes much of the fact that bookselling is a low profit business, which nobody will deny. As he informs us though, so too is Walmart. I imagine that buried in his piece but not expressed is the notion that it is those wicked publishers who are really the ones killing bookstores, by our stubborn refusal to give the booksellers bigger discounts. The commentariat alternates their excoriation of profit-seeking publishers by bashing them today for cheating bookstores, then next week for cheating authors. No doubt if they knew enough, they’d bash us for cheating suppliers too. Amazing to reflect how it happens that a low-paying industry staffed by and large by idealists, can have grown into such a rapacious monster.

Of course the fact of the matter is that this mature industry is ticking over just fine. Most sales are made through Amazon, and that’s just fine (Mike Shatzkin argues in his latest post that Amazon is in fact each big publisher’s most profitable outlet). The book chain era is over, or almost over: the dinosaurs have been superseded by Amazon, but lots of people have noticed that they rather like going into bookstores and looking at the books before they buy them. There is, to be sure, a show-rooming problem, and there will always be people who think it’s OK to stand in an independent bookstore and take out their phone to order from Amazon a book they’ve just discovered. There are unfortunately more of these jackasses than of people who will follow The Passive Guy’s suggestion of just slipping a bookseller a $20 bill every now and then, but they have to be outnumbered by folks who think supporting their local bookstore is a really good idea. Despite the fact that the point was passed long ago that it was impossible to fit another book in our apartment, we cannot visit an independent bookstore without walking out with yet another book. Almost reached this point with Barnes & Noble too, now they are in such trouble. Maybe we should just start handing out folding money.