Today, June 11th 2009, is the two year anniversary of the store and as I prepare to close for good next week I thought this would be a good occasion to offer a little insight into the decision to close Babylon Falling as well as share a few thoughts on the experience here over the past two years and my take on the future of bookselling.
Although I have an official story that I tell people who ask, I have been struggling to convey the non-financial factors that led to the decision to close. In the same way that finances weren’t the primary motivating factor in opening the store, to say that the decision to close was purely financial really doesn’t tell the whole story.
Assuming that the sudden and severe drop-off in sales that took place between October and December of 2008 was part of a larger trend that would continue at least through 2009 I sat down over Christmas and wrote a revised strategy for Babylon Falling that would allow us to not only stay in business but to be positioned properly for the eventual rebound, should there be one. Not only accounting for the economic climate, I also had to take into account the historic shift that the world of publishing and bookselling is currently undergoing. Writing the strategy it quickly became clear to me that if this ‘recession’ had any teeth Babylon Falling as I originally conceived it could not continue to exist. Implementing my revised strategy would be an effective abandonment of my original idea of creating the ‘anti-revolutionary bookstore’ revolutionary bookstore. It became apparent that in order to stay alive in this new world Babylon Falling would have to slowly morph into just another hip boutique that sold just the right amount of ‘edgy’ bs to flirt with the counter-culture but still occupy a safe space within the mainstream.
Naturally this idea was abhorrent to me and I resolved to give the store a couple more months and see how things went in the first part of the year. Between David Young’s show, Live Forever, in January and our Underground Press show in February, we had our two most successful events yet. But although we had great press, and the resultant increase in traffic to the store, we did not have the requisite increase in sales. As the Underground Press exhibit came down and after I consulted the numbers I was convinced that the slow down in sales was part of a trend that seemed to be only just beginning. Not able to withstand many more months at that pace and unwilling to implement a strategy that negated the original purpose of the store I knew I would have to close Babylon Falling.
I give thanks that because this store was run 100% with my own money the decision was entirely my own. It no doubt hurt to abandon my original investment and all that we were able to create in these two years, but in the end it seemed worse to me to defile the sanctity of the concept just to keep the doors open. We had a good run and I’m proud of all we were able to accomplish. If nothing else the thing I will take with me is the knowledge of just how powerful the creation of an inclusive, vibrant community can be.
The undoing of Babylon Falling can essentially be boiled down to bad timing. I caught one of the last waves and am grateful for my short ride but the culture that bred and sustained this particular retail model is coming to an end. My worry for the future of bookselling is not what people are buying or even the amount they are buying, but rather how they are buying. The idea of the bookseller in a curatorial role as a member of the community seems to be completely foreign to a culture that demands convenience above all else. That being said I have to acknowledge the changing role of the physical book in this culture. Books are only useful as a container and as a container they are only as important as the information they carry. With the physical book no longer the primary means of delivery of much of this information, and with the bricks and mortar store no longer the only source that provides books, bookstores can only find relevance through the community that they provide, not the community they serve. Nostalgia trips, fetishizing the book as a physical object, panhandling customers through guilt trips disguised as buy local programs, and the publisher’s perverted obsession with blockbuster titles do nothing to address the fundamental shift in technology and attitudes taking place. It’s going to be a tough few years in the world of bookselling for sure.
My experience with this store has been more encouraging than discouraging and I leave with a certain sense of accomplishment and pride. Love to everyone that helped get the store up and those that kept it running full speed till the end. I started to type up a list of people to thank – our core customers, all the booksellers who lent words of encouragement, all the publishers who took time to explain stuff to me, all the artists and writers who exhibited and did book signings here, those few people in the press who covered our events and wrote about the store, and the Babylon Falling extended family (you know who you are) – but quit when I realized just how ridiculously long the list was. That to me is testament to the strength of what we did here. So love to everyone who got it.