Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bookstores, Reading, Community

I opened up my emails this morning to find bad news I did not expect:  another one of my favorite independent bookstores is going out of business.  This is one of the bookstores I visit in a local, historic small town; frankly, I think it's one of the things that make the town worth visiting (besides their fine hotel and antique stores). 

We have been visiting that town, and so we stopped in this morning, though it made us sad.  One woman entering the store said, "Where am I going to buy my books?"  I said, "I think on the internet."  She said, "Sometimes, you have to go into a bookstore."

Apparently, not enough people agree with her.

I love bookstores (yarn stores, too, but that's possibly another post).  I did used to have this dream of opening a small bookstore, though I knew little or nothing about the business angle.  (Just to show you that the dream hasn't completely died, I recently thought a store called "A Good Yarn" would be a great idea for a shop that combined books and knitting supplies.) 

I do remember, however, a time before bookstores.  Our biggest department store had a book department, but the first bookstore I saw (a B. Dalton, I believe) was when I was in high school.  I was very intrigued.  A whole store of nothing but books.  It wasn't a big store, but it was a book store.  It was like a library, except you didn't have to bring the books back.

I went to the library as a kid.  I did not have a large personal library of children's books.  We bought a few books through the mail, but most of the books that I read I did not own.  One of my prized possessions was an edition of Little Men, given to me by a friend for a birthday.  I didn't really start accumulating books until I was in college.

So on a rational level, I understand that markets come and markets go.  When I was small, my dad had his own small business:  G&B Radio and TV.  He sold and repaired a lot of TVs.  He used to win sales contests, and he won prizes.  Then, fewer people bought TVs from small shops, and especially in that neighborhood.  Now I believe that a small TV Sales and Repair shop is a rare thing. 

But there's a part of me that thinks that this is about more than books, and more than markets.  It's about community.  It's about the value of real places where people gather, say hello, exchange goods, opinions, and actually know that they matter to one another.  And those places are not gone, I'm not being alarmist.  But somehow I feel that it needs to be said.

In an internet age, brick and mortar sometimes seems like a liability.  I mean that in a bottom line sort of way.  Amazon can sell more cheaply partly because they don't have brick and mortar stores.  But if you are a brick and mortar store, you also are a member of a particular community, and that is a value too.

In the community where I served for four years, there was a small grocery store.  Most people did their grocery shopping in the nearest city, thirty-five miles away.  But I remember one of my parish members who told me that she made a point of doing some of her shopping at the small store, even though they didn't have everything she needed, and even though the prices were higher.  Because, she said, having a grocery store in her community was a value to her.

So in the race to the bottom line, I still think it's a good question to ask:  where are the places that remind us that we are members of one another, that our destinies are intertwined, that we all do better when we all do better?


ROBERTA said...

Great post Diane! Love the picture:) And as a small business owner who just last week closed a business (a statuary) in a small town, I know the pain of not just losing income but of losing relationships with regular customers and meeting new people.

There is value in shopping locally as it does create community, as well as serving to remind us that we are all connected to one another.

Fran said...

A moving post with good, provocative and important questions.

The bookstore... I feel so sad because you have written about said bookstore, so I feel like I know it a little too. I am so sorry for the store and the community that gathered around it. I am always sad when community seems to diminish in some way or another, but I have to wonder where community is regrouping? (there are some answers to that but not now...)

It is interesting to read about your experience of bookstores as we are exactly the same age. For whatever reason, the small city in which I grew up had a big bookstore, Aldine's. It was actually really big, although not by today's standards.

Our crazy family had some redemptive qualities and one of them was the floor to ceiling books - everywhere. This led to lots of visits to Aldine's, a favorite place to go.

Fast forward to 1980. I traveled to San Jose, CA to visit a friend and we went to a bookstore that had a small coffee bar. I was so intrigued! Many years later, this was to be seen all over the place, but at the time, it was rare.

Bookstores are special places. I am sorry for the loss of the one you loved. I am pondering your questions now...

Lindy said...

My father won every election he ever entered, mainly for city council which was the one thing he really loved. He won with remarkably little campaigning and always said he didn't care if he won or lost. But one year he drew an opponent, sometimes this happened, sometimes not, and he got all geared up for campaigning: Yard signs, some campaign events, going door-to-door. I think he might even have gone to church! I asked him about it and he told me that the reason he needed to win this election is that his opponent didn't see the importance of a local drug store and supermarket. He said that if we lost those two things the town would not be able to survive. I think he was right. Little Sweeny manages to hold on to a nice-sized supermarket, complete with DVD rental section, and a drug store which won't pay any property taxes in my lifetime, but it'll be there for the old people. Just stand around in either one for a few minutes and you'll see friends greet on another, inquire about illnesses, share the gossip a little. Local city councils can do a lot to promote businesses and policies which build community. Whenever I go to a small town I always look to see if they have a supermarket and a drugstore.