Commentary: Our Bookstores, Ourselves
I sit here reading excerpts from a new book entitled My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read & Shop. Honestly, while there was great interest in talented writers such as Isabel Allende, Ann Patchett and Dave Eggers eloquently expressing how much their favorite bookstore meant to them, my heart literally broke remembering the bookstores that I used to frequent and had great relationships with the owners, only to see them close.
Another reason why my heart broke is when I glanced at these vivid descriptions by the treatment of the authors from the store owners, the enthusiastic book lovers who show up and the feeling of a real literary community, I couldn’t see it in my own experiences visiting bookstores in the past and that includes the surviving independent community bookstores in my old neighborhood. For example, here are a few quotes courtesy of the Book Passage January 2013 newsletter article discussing My Bookstore:
“Since 1987 I’ve started the tours for each of my books at Book Passage, the favorite place for authors on tour because they get an enthusiastic audience and are treated like celebrities, even when they are not.”
“There are no purer book people anywhere in the world. They know their store. They know their customers, and of course they know books.”
“… For a small store in a small town, Page & Pallette has the biggest heart of any bookstore I know. And Betty Joe’s customers appreciate it and are fiercely loyal. Even today, old-guard Fairhopeians wouldn’t dare be caught dead with a Kindle or, God forbid, a book ordered from Amazon.com.”
“All of this is a way of saying that it’s not a shop so much as an old friend’s home, a place
where thousands of us feel welcomed, woven into a circle, and surrounded by like-minded souls.…”
“The main thing was that the instant you stepped inside the door you knew that this was a place
where books were honored. There was a kind of respectful intelligence behind everything, and to make your way down the aisles was to engage in conversation with whoever it was who’d arranged them. …”
And then, this quote really struck home for me. I included one of her quotes in the beginning but this one from Ms. Allende gave me pause: (mentioning Book Passage)
“This bookstore is the cultural soul of a large community. It’s the place to take writing classes, learn languages, attend conferences, participate in book clubs and speakers’ series, and, if you are a teenager, Twitter-talk (whatever that is). Elaine and Bill Petrocelli work with schools, community organizations, and restaurants, they do fund-raising for many causes, and they have a partnership with Dominican University so that students can receive credit for classes and conferences. Their clientele is so loyal that Amazon and the chains have not been able to put them out of business, and, let me tell you, they have tried.” (Bold: mine)
In past years, I’ve seen many start-up independent bookstores open up (even had a first signing at a grand opening) only to wind up closing after a year or two. I would see the excitement in the eyes of the visitors who would walk in, looking around, not buying anything. Well, there would be a select few, but not enough. The same independents would hold spoken word nights, book signings and discussions, had community forums, even one bookstore with a Latino population would sell books in Spanish, recognizing the need to stock books for that ethnic group. These efforts though encouraging, did not attract a lot of book sales by residents. Over time, the cost of overhead would increase and eventually it would be too much for the owners to maintain operations. All they could do was leave and close their doors.
In certain neighborhoods, independent bookstores aren’t as valued as in other neighborhoods across town. Residents don’t share the same view or fail to see the purpose of a literary shop where they live. The booksellers I’ve spoken with and grown to know had a wish of opening a store where books could be sold, events could be held and share their space with the community. I would also see the disappointment in their eyes when they were faced with closing their doors for good. In some instances, a visitor would come in and reply with a shocked look that they were just finding out where the bookstore was located despite the flyers sent out, email blasts and other methods of promotion. Irony reared its head many times in situations like the one described. The result is always too little, too late.
Now before anyone feels this is a condemnation, it is not. Merely, it is a hard truth and reality of bookselling today. One segment of the society can afford to buy books and support stores; the other cannot for individuals in this economy (even before that) have to choose their finances very carefully. Books, unless it’s from a famous author they know, aren’t at the top of that list. Again; this is not a condemnation but fact.
In the literary community, we like to harp on the influence of Amazon and the plight of the fading independent bookseller. Then, you look at Book Passage and watch the success they’ve had over the years. Yes, it’s in place called Corte Madera in an affluent county in Northern California (Marin). Yes, most of the authors who stopped by are well-known and renowned and yes, they have overwhelming support. Yet, this bookstore (and I suspect others) has expanded beyond its walls. It’s become a hub for the community as listed in the above quote. Who says they have to be the only ones? On the other side of the spectrum is Piccolo’s Books, a bookseller based in Southern California (and other locations). They too work with organizations, schools and have done quite well. The difference? Piccolo’s sells their books for only a dollar, whereas Book Passage sells theirs at regular prices. Also, Piccolo’s serves a diverse clientele. Opposite they may be, the objectives of both bookstores are the same; to serve the communities in which they are based in. Not to say there aren’t other bookstores that don’t have the same level of commitment, there are except the variance between Book Passage and Piccolo’s are huge, in terms of pricing and inventory.
What we can all learn from these writers is that independent bookstores do have a place in our fast paced technologically dependent 21st Century. They no longer have to be the behemoth brick-and-mortar stores we’ve grown accustomed to. Nor can bookstores retain the same romanticism of the past, before the giant retailers ruined all that. Writers long before the author of this essay have expressed the need and necessity of supporting an independent bookstore. While Amazon receives the rave for changing the playing field for authors and publishers, the predatory nature of the online retailer has caused many to pause and consider (or reconsider) the personal touch of an actual bookseller than the point and click instantaneous gratification of selecting a title at the touch of a button. This fight will go on undoubtedly for as long as there is a generation who embraces the brave new world of literature and the generation who continues to value the print book, even the feel of one in their hands. Bookstores should create a sense of camaraderie among patrons, they should be venues of important thoughtful discussion, and a place to escape from the real – and social media world every now and then. There are not enough pictures of cats, doomsday scenarios, conspiracy theories or ‘ratchets’ on Facebook to keep you entertained for hours. Even the most ardent Twitter fanatic needs a break now and then. Hopefully bookstores can and will continue to help fill that void.
Black Dog & Leventhal are the publishers of My Bookstore and they should be lauded for their efforts in compiling thoughts from writers who are just as loyal to their bookstores as the bookstores have been loyal to them in helping to promote their works. It is the hope this will convince more artists to speak out on promoting the importance and influence bookstores can have on virtually anyone’s life, despite social class or circumstance. Books have a way of breaking down barriers or understanding the experiences of all of mankind, not only a select few. Bookstores provide an up close and personal exploration of that idea to where technology doesn’t provide that – at least not yet. It is also hoped perhaps once the love of a Kindle, iPad or digital tablet fades away, the love of a printed book will return once again, and the place to rekindle that romance is found in a bookstore.
Yes, this is all a dream. However, I will always argue bookstores are the proper places to catch one.
Charles L. Chatmon
Authors N Focus Extra