We hear a lot these days about how bricks and mortar bookstores are closing, the big ones often taken down by Amazonians shooting fiery economic spread sheets. But below the radar, humming along in strip malls and back corners and converted garages, people are still selling books: like Debbie out in Buffalo, Missouri, who took $800 from her life’s savings, bought a dormer and set it on a concrete slab, then called her friends to bring their cast-offs. That’s how she opened. She’s still there.
So is Ann in Philadelphia, who just celebrated her second anniversary as a new-and-used store AND just adopted Amelia, the first shop staff-cat. And Joe in Tupelo, who went down to his Barnes and Noble with flyers announcing the opening hours and trade credit policies of his independent used bookstore, and stuck them to the windshields of the cars parked there.
Over Christmas 2011 Jack and I visited 42 independent bookstores in 10 states; the trip is in my book, but the day-by-day visits make up the BOOKING DOWN THE ROAD TRIP section of this blog site. Some incredible, resilient people out there are running bookshops.
They know, as Jack and I do, that bookstores are so much more than retail concerns: intellectual pubs, the place where people find someone to talk to; quiet places in which to catch your breath for fifteen browsing minutes; where you can find the books that will never be made into movies, never make landfall on a top ten list, but whose gentle stories deserve notice; the watering hole of human spirits that may not even be all that like-minded, but unite in believing that commercial viability isn’t the sole criterion for ranking an idea’s importance.
Plus, bookstores are part of that diminishing “third space” network made up of neighborhood diners, family greenhouses, little yarn shops, and the other places not run from a national office or housed in a box store–those “third spaces” where we are not part of the office staff, nor fulfilling a designated role in a family, but being ourselves. Just ourselves.
Remember when farmers markets made a comeback? A backlash erupted against the fast food lifestyle: too much sodium, too little quality. I think American consumers are beginning to feel the same about bookstores. Readers have returned to awareness of how much more fun it is to shop with real people than online. Realization is dawning that—like breaded, fried fast food versus a slow-cooked home supper—faster and cheaper is not always better (and that the price difference might not be as high as one might think, either).
A growing number of customers eschew the “savings” of buying online, recognizing that “bargain” hides costs too dear to pay–losing a lifestyle of strolling to the corner shop and talking to other bibliophiles browsing the shelves, severing human connections. It makes us happy to know that Flossie (Union Ave), Cheryl (Burke’s), Jennifer (Wise Old Owl) and the rest are out there offering access, ambiance and advice. I’ll pay more to keep them there, because what they do for us is priceless. I think other people will, too.