If books are for tasting, as Francis Bacon suggested, it stands to reason that, in at least a couple of respects, bookstores resemble restaurants: Franchises offer discounts and quick consuming, while independents provide quality and an atmospheric graze.
But what about service? In the interest of fruitful book-shopping, we recently sampled three independent local bookstores and three chains to size up the help. Always leaning to the scientific method, we asked standard questions and attempted a standard degree of finicky-customer demeanor.
Independents: Modest store proportions allow easy access to personnel, unless concealed by picturesque but labyrinthine and probably hazardous book stacks; employees often preoccupied with phone orders, inventories or loud, dynamic cultural analyses, e.g. the merits of Vincent Price's fly impersonation vs. Jeff Goldblum's.
Chains: Much airier dimensions and elevated service counter ensure that staff is always within eyeshot, if not easy walking distance; service style varies from inability to interact without electronic mediation to attentiveness and politesse of Chinese waiters.
PROFESSIONALISM (A) GROOMING
Independents: Reassuring neo-anarchist uniforms (19th-Century eyewear, odd number of earrings, colorless garments, matching complexions).
Chains: Ambiguous, waiter-like sweater/slacks ensembles.
PROFESSIONALISM (B) KNOWLEDGE
Independents: Fluent in signed stock, generous with bookmarks. Good source for local intellectual developments, viz, critical acclaim for Tartikoff biography within Paramount community.
Chains: Superior computer skills and mnemonic command of prices, aisle locations. Good source for new literary genres such as Weddings/Divorces.
RESOURCEFULNESS (Gauged by request for "Jealousy," a 1958 Alain Robbe-Grillet novel)
Independents: "Wasn't that a movie by Godard?"; "If it's in print, you'll find it under Robbe-Grillet in Literature"; "Wasn't that a book by Nancy Friday?"
Chains: Uniformly turned up "Jealousy" on the computer, but it turned out to be the one by Nancy Friday.