A chapter closes for small independents

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The Independent Online
THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a bookstore under siege. It used to be a beachfront institution, an unashamed piece of leftish counter-culture on the Promenade in Santa Monica, in the same mould as radical bookshops on Charing Cross Road, in central London.

This is where you would read the alternative press, left in disorderly piles near the entrance, or wander the cavernous stacks in search of the latest in gender studies or Noam Chomsky's latest cause celebre.

Then, a few years ago, Barnes and Noble opened one of its superstores within easy walking distance, on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard, with five or six times the floorspace. With the exception of a handful of political or sociological titles, Midnight Special found itself outgunned on all fronts.

Last year, an equally huge Borders sprang up even closer on the other side, offering not only books and magazines and the inevitable coffee shop, but music and live events that ate right into Midnight Special's evening clientele.

The shop is still there, staunchly supported by its hard core of long- standing fans. But it is a forlorn shadow of its former self, struggling to hang on. The staff have become less knowledgeable and more curmudgeonly, in contrast to the two chains which draw happily on the bright, breezy stock of undergraduates from UCLA.

In America's thriving book trade, there is scarcely any room left for the independent seller. In a few short years, Barnes and Noble and its smaller, slightly more upscale rival Borders have simply swept the board with their large in-house inventories, their invitation to browse and their ability to pop up in the best locations in just about every city and small town.

The only competition comes either from the specialised bookstores, such as Book Soup, the mecca for titles on cinema and the film industry, on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, or from much-loved shops in the bigger, more literate cities. Elliott Bay Book Company, in Seattle, for example, has thrived thanks to its size, intelligent lay-out and informative staff. But this store too risks losing out as the "Big Two" encroach on its downtown location.

There is another threat to the corner bookstore, and indeed to the giant chains. On-line book-selling offers a near-limitless range of titles at discounted prices. What makes amazon. com and the others particularly insidious is that they are operating at a loss to break into the market. This means the service they provide has in effect triggered a price war, in which everyone gets dragged down and only the biggest players can survive.