SAN DIEGO — Larry McCaffery thinks San Diego bookstores are lousy. And McCaffery ought to know.
He's professor of fiction at San Diego State University and co-editor of Fiction International, one of the country's finest collections of new fiction.
He's upset that no bookstore in the county caters willfully to small presses, or to new or avant-garde collections of fiction or poetry. San Diego bookstores are too heavy on "high-grade commercial fare," he said--or what's worse, best-sellers.
"I get most of my books by mail order," he said with a shrug.
George Mitrovich, president of the City Club, which once sponsored a seminar on the decline of English grammar, thinks San Diego bookstores are better than lousy--but only by a bookmark.
"There is no great bookstore in San Diego," he said. "And it's conceivable that with the demise of Pickwick's in Hollywood, there is no great bookstore in Southern California."
Others tend to agree, but stop short of stating it quite so strongly. Others disagree sharply, saying San Diego has at least two, maybe three, four or five bookstores that put it on a par with some of the great bookstore cities in the country.
So, what is a great bookstore? Or for that matter, a great bookstore city? One definition of a great bookstore seems to be one that satisfies intellectuals--classics, esoteric biographies, lush displays--while also appeasing those who relish an "off the wall" discovery, the unusual, the eccentric, the bizarre. Others want something simpler, not necessarily best sellers but the best, for instance, in travel, photography, art and music.
To get a sampling of opinion, a sprinkling of the city's readers were asked which bookstores they prefer and how they compare to San Diego's. The results indicate that bookstore preferences, as much as reading, are a matter of taste and intellectual individualism. Rating bookstores may be as delicately subjective as asking somebody who they spend their time with and why.
This story focuses on San Diego's independents and how they compare with their counterparts around the land. Used books are another story, as are the stores that carry them. And the chains? Well, nobody seemed to care, except to cast them as villains, or as obstacles keeping San Diego from the pinnacle of great bookstore cities.
One constant did emerge. Most mourn the decline of independent bookstores--those that aren't chain-controlled, in the manner of B. Dalton, Waldenbooks and Crown Books, which swallow up smaller fish like so many corporate piranha.
"The chains," said McCaffery angrily, "are no better than television. They are actively destroying serious writing in this country. The mentality underlying those chains is the same mentality underlying McDonald's. And they are ruining serious fiction in America."
A woman close to the book scene, who asked not to be identified, tells a story of what happened one day in the office of a major publisher. She was there, recommending a book by a friend.
"Sounds good," the man said. "But let me make a phone call."
He called the head of B. Dalton, one of the largest bookstore chains. "Can you sell 15,000 copies" of such-and-such? The voice on the other end apparently said no.
The publisher turned to the woman and said: "Sorry. We just can't do it. If they don't like it, we can't afford to."
Still, Kathy Conlon, assistant store manager of Waldenbooks at Mission Valley Center, said McCaffery is wrong to be so critical of chains.
"I think I can see where he's coming from," she said. "He's looking at the corporation aspect. Well, it is a business and it's going to be run like a business. Decisions are going to be made on what sells, and sometimes it's trash. If that's what sells, that's the way it is.
"But credit has to be given to the individuals who run the stores. Our customers are not stupid. When I'm ordering, I don't say this is trash, this is mindless, and wow, people will love it! You can, however, read Sidney Sheldon and get really caught up in it. It's a release.
"On the other hand, we're willing to give serious writers a chance. We fight to keep up with what's new and good."
Conlon admitted, however, that Waldenbooks (based in Stamford, Conn.) gives any book a three-month run. Period. If it hasn't passed muster by then, it is usually shipped out. McCaffery considers this devastating to new or unconventional authors or to any small-press publication.
"We try to keep up with what's current," Conlon said. "That includes a lot of best sellers. A lot of times, books go back as company returns that we would have liked to keep (in the local store). But hey, that's reality."
In further defense of the chains, literary agent Sandra Dijkstra said: "I'm not entirely pessimistic about them. They are bringing books to the hinterlands."
She's frightened, however, that a few people--book buyers for the chains--are controlling the reading habits of Americans.