Bookstores [jay]

I am concerned about the current state of the book.

It’s probably important for you to know that books are, quite literally, friends of mine.  My most prized material possession is my library, and I have actual relationships with — just to name a few — Ahab, Kerbouchard, Meg, Gandalf, Lord Henry, Old Dan and Little Ann, Lucy, and Stephen Dedalus (Moby Dick, The Walking Drum, A Wrinkle In Time, Lord Of The Rings, The Picture Of Dorian GrayWhere The Red Fern Grows, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man).  Which is why I love re-reading well-written books.  Character development in a well-written book is such that as you get to know the characters, they change as you change and your experience of them changes.  Re-reading a great book is really enjoyable.

For a large part of my life — late into college — I was told all the time what and how to think.  One of the few places I had any intellectual freedom was the library or bookstore.  I remember reading Mutiny On The Bounty when I was twelve and it blew my mind.  Sea captains, marauders, intrigue, beautifully mysterious Tahitian women, rebellion, revenge, justice, all from a captivating story brilliantly written.  I would never have been allowed to watch this as a movie, but as a piece of classic literature…it was different cause it was a book (I had even checked it out of the library at my very strict, conservative Christian school).  I came to learn that In a book, I could be free.  

So I’m really defensive of books.  It took me a while to emotionally process the concept of the electronic reader.  I’ve since come to terms with them, and even read Sports Illustrated, The Atlantic or TIME on my wife’s iPad, but not a book.  I need to have a book in my hands.  The smell, the feel, the weight…it’s just right.  Yes, I know, I can carry ten thousand volumes on a Kindle and play Angry Birds at the same time, but I just can’t bring myself to it.  Feels like I’m contemplating cheating on my wife.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: bookstores.  The steward of the book.  There are categorical types of bookstores: the mega-bookstore, the used/new bookstore, and the online bookstore.

As I write this and the next paragraph, I am sitting at Barnes and Noble on North State Street in the Gold Coast region of Chicago.  I’m not a fan of the mega-bookstore.  First off, bringing together two massive, over-charging consumer-driven corporations like Barnes and Noble and Starbucks is just plain ridiculous.  $5 for a latte and $30 for a hardback copy of Keegan’s First World War?  That’s insane.  And I’m insane for doing it.  If you took any Barnes and Noble bookstore and chopped off the coffeeshop, the seating area, the ludicrous amount of periodicals, the digital entertainment sections, the greeting cards and lap desks, the journals and gift wrap, the self-help, sexuality, romance and religion sections, what you’d essentially be left with is a normal bookstore.  This place is selling Legos.  Legos at a bookstore.  Seriously?  This must be a sign of the apocalypse.  Oh, and over there are a bunch of board games.  And over there is a stand with a bunch of photo-themed calendars on it.  And here’s a bunch of kid’s toys, stuffed animals and kitschy crap.  Bookstores should sell one thing: books.  Barnes and Noble is basically a small, just-okay bookstore surrounded by a sea of pathetic consumer junk.  There is a whole generation of people growing up thinking that this is a great bookstore.  It is not.

I haven’t even gotten to the worst thing about Barnes and Noble though, or its thankfully deceased cousin Borders.  Here it is, the main reason you should hate this place too: it’s a bookstore that is trying to kill the book.  As soon as you walk in the door of any Barnes and Noble, what is right in front of you?  A stand trying to sell every patron a Nook.  They ought to be ashamed of themselves.  It is not a bookstore’s job to push reading.  It is a bookstore’s job to sell books.  It is the job of parents to push reading.  I don’t care if you can fit an entire library on to an electronic device, books have saved the world for millennia and I don’t think that is going to stop any time soon.  Books are taking and will continue to take a hit, but mark my words, the printed word on real paper is here to stay, at least for a few more generations.  Damn you, Barnes and Noble…may you find the same road that Borders happened across.

As I write this paragraph and the next, I am sitting at Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania…my favorite bookstore.  This place is five levels of used book heaven.  They too have a coffeeshop, but it is their own; the coffee is killer and reasonably priced.  The Americano at Midtown Scholar is a cup of perfection. That’s it: coffee, tea and books.  Tons, miles, gobs and scads of books.  The best classic literature and art sections of which I know.  Midtown Scholar understands better than anyone what I consider to be the most important principle in running a bookstore: make the patron work for it.  When you go to a bookstore, you should have to work to find what it is you’re looking for.  There should not be computers and catalogs to appease seek-and-destroy book shopping experiences.  When you go looking for a book, a good bookstore will enchant you with several other books while you’re in the process of finding the one that you’re actually looking for, possibly so enchanting you that you forget why you went there in the first place.  If you don’t leave with more books than you hoped to find, then you missed the experience.

My favorite thing about Midtown Scholar is the upstairs back room.  The books in there are unsorted, just sort of stacked around, waiting to be discovered like Green Day before Dookie.  You have to move stuff, looking at titles and author names at the same time, allowing your curiosity and thirst for something more to take over.  In the back room, I found this old, dilapidated almanac of Pennsylvania containing some of the most beautiful maps I have ever seen.  Took me an hour of staring and moving stuff for no good reason to happen across it.  So glad I did.

As I write this paragraph, I have Amazon.com open on my browser.  I just searched for “’71 Corvette alternator” and Amazon provided me with 152 results.  Why is a site that is known for being an online bookstore selling car parts or any of the other myriad items you could possibly want?  Clearly, Amazon has lost its way (or found it, I guess).  Amazon is also trying to kill the book.  The Kindle is wicked cool and fast and flashy and whatnot, but it’s just like the Nook and you know how I feel about that.

Here’s the great thing about Amazon though: my wife just bought Meet The Austins by Madeleine L’Engle from some shop in Denver for one cent.  It cost $4.50 in shipping, but that is still pretty cheap (way cheaper than I would have gotten it at Barnes and Noble).  Amazon offers a platform for bringing together people like me (and hopefully you), people who want to see the book thrive.  It is a point of connection and exchange that allows for the book to keep breathing and gaining momentum, moving one good (or bad) piece of writing after another from one corner of this world to the next, taking that book’s depth of experience, richness and beauty with it into the heart and mind of reader after reader.  A beautiful marriage of technology and simplicity, preserving the beauty of the book.

I am concerned for the future of the book and for the steward of the book: the bookstore.  Books are worth saving and passing on as a heritage and history to our progeny.  Good bookstores are worth finding and going out of your way to frequent.  Don’t miss this opportunity to redeem a piece of culture that our American consumeristic worldview is trying to exploit and then execute.

Save the book.

Jay’s Top Six Bookstores:

1.  Midtown Scholar Bookstore  Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

2.   Tattered Cover Bookstore  Denver, Colorado

3.  Hearts and Minds Bookstore  Dallastown, PA

4.  The Clifden Bookshop  Clifden, Ireland

5.  Inquiring Mind Bookstore  Woodstock, New York

6.  Subterranean Books  St Louis, Missouri

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3 thoughts on “Bookstores [jay]

  1. I completely agree. There is no experience that comes close to browsing a used bookstore. Its such a wonderful and exciting adventure. Springfield’s best used bookstore just went out of business, and it broke my heart.

  2. I’m glad to see that Subterranean got a shout-out.

    I think I’m sadly a little too comfortable with the consumer-based bookshopping experience. It’s not that I don’t enjoy visiting smaller, privately-owned bookstores, because I do, but I like that I can go and lose myself in the fiction section (which is the only part of a Barnes & Noble (or the now-defunct Borders) store I’ve ever browsed) and have not all, but most any author or novel I could think to find right there at my fingertips. Maybe it’s just an excuse, and perhaps a bad one, but in that regard at least I enjoy Barnes & Noble — though I agree with your above argued position.

    As a side-note, I don’t believe the printed book will ever disappear. I wager it’s only a matter of time before print media / print journalism are gone, but the novel will never be replaced by e-readers. And I refuse to buy one.

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