Ptarmigan

a grouse with completely feathered feet

3/05/2004

I have really mixed feelings about Ruminator Books, a local "institution" of an independent bookstore (they have, incidentally, withdrawn their public stock offering). On one hand, there have been some great booksellers there--who are actively interested, e.g., in zines and little magazines, and have tried to actively promote good books and magazines and a healthy literary culture (in a metro area where such a thing, while it exists, is often patchwork).

On the other hand...I've had a fair amount of anecdotal evidence of just miserable service there. My wife, trying to do the right thing and all, special ordered a book from Ruminator. About a week later, she got a call that the book had arrived. She went out of her way, driving wise, to pick up the book. Lo and behold, the book wasn't there. It hadn't arrived yet. Kristin tried to get an answer, any answer, from the staff person there, who was disinterested at best. Other friends of mine have had bizarre and off-putting experiences of the same ilk. Also, much of the stock leaves something to be desired. In the five years that I've been in the Twin Cities, the poetry section has really deteriorated. It's hard to find even vaguely off-beat poetry books there. The books are often shelved sloppily. The science fiction and fantasy section is embarassing--rather than try to do something creative with it and push more towards the innovative end of the spectrum, there's the mostly tired, ratted usual suspects. The layout of the store is cavernous and confusing. Finally, some (although not all) of the staff leans towards the actively unhelpful, a sense that the customer is somehow an embargo to what the workplace is supposed to be all about.

Which is their right, I guess--but why should there be this sense of entitlement for Ruminator's very existence, when at face value it's only a slightly better than average bookstore? Obviously, having a strong flagship independent bookstore in the Twin Cities is more than important; it's crucial to the literary health of a community. And equally obviously, the chains have had some detrimental effect. But I've seen nothing especially innovative in really solving their problems that don't involve smokescreens, or at best stopgap measures to stave the bleeding. Selling the Hungry Mind name? Having famous authors donate their accoutrements? "Public stock" offerings? These aren't real solutions to get people to buy books. (How about decent customer service? That would be a start.)

That's what kills me: Ruminator is so necessary and yet so oddly passive--from a business standpoint--about its impending demise. Do something about it, rather than hand-wring and try to play off people's guilt. Don't mask your failures in sanctimony and don't rely on handouts. Earn our business.

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