The Underground Empire

As a graduate student, deep in the throes of obsessive, fruitless bibliophilia, I’d steal moments from reading Bakhtin or grading freshman compositions or whatever it was I did then and think about how great it would be if I were a book buyer at one of the local independent bookstores. Those lucky souls got to sort through the boxes of books first, set aside the volumes they wanted, and pay for them whenever they got around to it. They were in position to take advantage of those who didn’t know the real value of things; those who didn’t appreciate priceless copy of, say, Althusser’s Reading Capital, which was impossible to find, even at the university library, where it was permanently lost in the limbo of some professor’s reading carrel. If I were a buyer, I figured I’d probably work for free, my wages going entirely to books. It seemed a reasonable deal at the time. I figured I could easily live on books, my university stipend, and basmati rice.

While this daydream was fed mainly by covetousness, it was also fueled by envy and shame, usually experienced when, lusting for store credit, I’d bring my paltry box of books culled from thrift stores, yard sales, university Dumpsters and library book sales in for the store’s perusal. I could hardly stand to be near the counter while what I brought was inspected and sorted. So intense was the feeling that I was being judged, that my discernment was being questioned, that my acumen for spotting value would be dismissed. Worse, the buyer might mistake the books for items pulled from my personal collection; she might think I actually at one time bought The Chalice and the Blade or The Bean Trees or those Signet Classics editions of Jane Austen for myself. (Oxford or Penguin were the preferred paperbacks — better critical apparatuses, better covers, better fonts and better bindings.)

It seemed to me that the buyer, perched behind the counter, invariably bespectacled and inscrutable, held all the power that mattered to me then. She decided which of my books were credible enough to be added to the store’s select inventory, and she got to dole out the seemingly arbitrary amount of credit in return. Her decisions about what was interesting and sellable carried weight: Hers shaped the store and its reputation; mine were just whims and personal prejudices. More important, during those anxious moments in the store it felt as though she got to decide whether I was interesting. In short, she was an insider in what art critic Dave Hickey has called “an underground empire” of “record stores, honky-tonks, art bars, hot-rod shops, recording studios, commercial art galleries, city rooms, jazz clubs, cocktail lounges, surf shops, bookstores, rock-and-roll bars, editorial offices, discos, and song factories,” all the interstitial places in America “where otherwise normal people did all these cool things” (Air Guitar Art Issues Press, 1997). For Hickey, the underground empire consists of places where you not only could get interesting stuff and be exposed to out-of-the-ordinary experiences, but also meet people who could share your enthusiasm for it all and discuss it with you. I wanted to belong to that world. But the quiet aloofness of the bookstore employees told me in no uncertain terms that that world had some reservations about me.

But in Hickey’s vision of this off-the-radar cultural utopia, the woman behind the bookstore counter isn’t really an adversary. Instead, she’s a kind of mentor who anticipates my interests; not to pass silent judgment on their predictability or naiveté but to recommend books I might like and chat with me earnestly about them. We were supposed to be allies against the hegemony, carving out a safe niche together sheltered from the anonymizing mainstream, a place where all who enter shall be recognized in the full flower of their uniqueness. To Hickey, the underground empire is important not merely because it preserves interesting culture in the face of vast institutional forces — mainly, in his opinion, elitist professors, and art-dole bureaucrats in government agencies — but because it fosters community and conversation about that culture. Moreover, it redeems commercialization, revealing it as the happy source of all that conviviality. “The best thing about little stores,” Hickey asserts, “was that if you were a nobody like me, and didn’t know anything, you could go into one of them and find things out. People would talk to you, not because you were going to buy something, but because they loved the stuff they had to sell.” In the underground empire of small proprietors, a perfectly serendipitous fusion of the cultural and commercial occurs, seizing the magic power of capitalism’s invisible hand and wielding it against deadening social forces. The businessman emerges as a culture hero, owning a store not to make a profit but to spread the love of beautiful, interesting things.

That’s not all. Hickey suggests that perhaps the last hope for democracy itself lies in the interlaced network of these small businesses, which constitute a cultural grass roots wherein ordinary people’s idiosyncratic preferences can be expressed in a myriad of quirky purchases. The problem with democracy in a mass society is that one’s preferences can often seem insignificant. In politics the consequences of this are already obvious: “Individuals have little incentive to invest in political participation, the development of ‘enlightened understanding’ of political alternatives, or the control of political agents’ behavior so long as the group is large and the individual’s contribution makes little difference in determining the outcome. Such is the tragedy of collective choice in mass democracies: voter and nonvoter, zealous discussant and political illiterate, in the end, have to live with the very same political outcomes regardless of the extent of their participation.” (Michael Wohlgemuth, “The Communicative Character of Capitalistic Competition: A Hayekian Response to the Habermasian Challenge”, Independent Review Summer 2005, 83-115). People reject politics altogether since their opinions don’t seem to count.

In the realm of leisure and pleasure, the danger is that people will reject culture altogether in the same way, for similar reasons. The nationwide rise of big-box stores, ubiquitous fast-food restaurants, giant chain bookstores and the like seem as though they efface personal taste, leveraging economies of scale against underground-empire culture — against small-press books, indie record labels, ethnic cuisines, unsigned bands, outsider artists, foreign films, fair-trade coffee, locally grown apples — all the things that for various reasons don’t acquire strong enough constituencies to secure a place in the public square. Sometimes people just aren’t aware of these things, sometimes bigger corporations stifle them to keep their own operations streamlined, sometimes their appeal is limited by sheer eccentricity. At any rate, rigged or not, when culture itself becomes a kind of democratic popularity contest, individuals eventually suffer from the same lack of incentives that keeps them politically illiterate. When the Wal-Marts and Barnes and Nobleses take over, people have no reason to develop an aesthetic literacy, to follow shifts in avant-garde culture, to understand art and have a stake in its being meaningful, challenging, moral, inspiring, and so on. We lose the will to be curious.

Whereas in the underground empire, things are purportedly different. Because the very livelihood of the sole proprietors of underground-empire businesses is bound up with the things they love, Hickey presumes they’ll work that much harder to spread the gospel about them. He thinks that through their monetary investment they have that stake in culture and that they infect their customers with it, with a zeal for quality. For their business model to work, there needs to be more and more discriminating shoppers who care. I’m reminded of those well-meaning record-store clerks who urged me not to waste my money on Frankie Goes to Hollywood records and tried to steer me toward something more substantive. Of course, I saw nothing well-meaning in it at the time. Instead I would be extremely irritated, if not humiliated, by the intrusion and wished I had the nerve to tell these guys to fuck off. I didn’t want some cognoscenti paternalist telling me what to listen to anymore than I wanted the clerk at the bookstore to shake her head at my silly notions about what were sellable books.

One can put a democratic spin on the underground empire, but for all that, it remains an empire, and those involved with it are often invested primarily in conserving power, protecting whatever cultural capital they have managed to accrue. The mainstream world is by and large indifferent to most people’s subjective evaluations of culture — like whatever you want to like, de gustibus non disputandum est — but the underground empire provides a means to give those judgments weight, making them a weapon against philistines. In a recent Slate essay, economist Tyler Cowen argues that “our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation — a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to)” (“What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For?“). Independent bookstores cater to those who elevate the style of their shopping over the substance of it; the stores are far more inconvenient than chains or online options, with less stock and frequently arcane shelving methods. The real business of the clerks at these stores is not necessarily to help anyone but to police the fence around the ersatz community Cowen mentions — to essentially help the store shop for appropriate customers who will preserve the elite status of that community, presuming the hard-currency value of that status to community members remains sufficient to keep the store open.

In other words, the underground empire is designed to produce cliquish hipsters who finance the entire quasi-countercultural enterprise not from a sense of patronage or taste, but from insecurity over being just like everyone else. I felt that insecurity acutely when I would make my trips to Book Haven. I hadn’t intended to be shopping for approval — I wasn’t really looking to join a cool-kids club — but the milieu of indie bookstores and record shops demands we think about commerce in precisely those terms. Not that they market approval directly: They fall short of the thrift store chain Savers and its tactic of broadcasting flattering messages over the intercom, stoking the customers’ self-importance, reminding them of what smart, excellent citizens they are for saving the planet while saving money, too. It’s more that the stores provide a place for culture snobs — whether they are employees or fellow shoppers — to operate comfortably, giving them a sandbox in which their arbitrary lines can be drawn. I wanted to be on the right side of that line, and I went to independent bookstores to see if I measured up. I let my book shopping take on the trappings of a moral crusade against the “mediocrity” of chain-store conformity.

However, when exploiting that insecurity and doling out indie cred no longer pays, small businesses ultimately have to cater to whatever customers want; hence they “sell out”: bookstores start to sell pornography, clubs book second-rate bands, galleries jump on art-world trends, ethic restaurants add burgers to the menu and tamp down the spiciness, and record store clerks become too jaded to stop people like me from buying those Frankie Goes to Hollywood records. Whatever mentoring might have gone on stops, and the customer/clerk relation hardens into mutual suspicion.

Hickey believes the underground empire exemplifies community, social justice, and “successful human society”, but in light of the tensions that arise when the stores’ need to make money leads to the customers’ need to feel cool becoming commercialized, that view seems sentimental, nostalgic. In general, nostalgia obliterates tensions, whether they are between record-store snobs and customers with inadequate taste, between elitist independent bookstores and vulgarized mass-market chains, or between different political interest groups battling over limited resources to which, theoretically at least, everyone has a constitutionally guaranteed equal right. Democracy is an endless struggle to build coalitions, but in Hickey’s memories, in his idealizations of popular culture, these coalitions occur spontaneously, out of our shared joy for neat stuff. Would that it were so.

So an independent bookstore is no place to view the remnants of the American dream. If you want to see something closer to what democracy really looks like, go to the public library. As Cowen points out, you won’t feel like you are in a cool place, you won’t see anybody trying to be cool, and you won’t feel particularly important yourself (especially if you’re waiting in the interminable lines that typify my local branch, which make the post office seem a model of hyperefficiency). You’ll just see average members of your community fighting over access to whatever local government has managed to provide for and overworked volunteers or underpaid staff doing their bureaucratic best not to play favorites.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.