You've Got Bookstores: A Bibliophile's Dilemma
Organized Nirvana, Meet Dr. Seuss's Brand of Bookstore
The Return of Outdated Conflict's Past
I find myself in a bit of a quandary regarding an inner conflict that on the grand scale of all the problems occurring in the world is probably not worth mentioning. Yet in the realm of online blogging, what isn’t mentioned? The problem is this: I love the franchise of big book stores such as Barnes and Nobles, Borders and Joseph Beth Booksellers. The sections are usually wonderfully organized to allow for easy perusing, each section usually has an ample supply of books and when one is ready to plump down with a nine foot tower of tottering books (that you don’t have to put back), there exists a nice, cushy chair on which to plump. And if you feel like splurging, you can even count on spending a bit too much on a caffeinated beverage and, if you’re feeling really gourmand, some kind of muffin or brownie is within reach of purchase. At such a bookstore, the opportunity exists to join a writing group or book club. Authors even come to such a big book store and speak at times. At such a place, one can feel a sense of peace, transcendence even.
What then is the problem? Simply that while I thoroughly enjoy the shot of energy pulsing in my blood every time I’m graced with the opportunity to walk into such a place, I have a few experiences that make me long for more from the world of the bibliophile. When I was 11, my mom and I took off to explore Canada, see the Niagara Falls, even visit Toronto. To my then 11-year-old mind, these opportunities were all right. Not amazing or worthy of the mouth-watering anticipation akin to waiting for the next book from a beloved author, but just all right. The one opportunity that I do remember being thoroughly stoked about was the opportunity to go to a quirky bookstore in a Victorian house. I think it was in Columbus. Although it was the prologue to the real trip, I could have vacationed quite happily at this Nirvana where the curved stairs went up, up, up to sections more strange and wonderful than I could ever have hoped for. And while the chairs weren’t as new looking as the ones at a big name bookstore, they were still quite plumpable. In this bookstore, I discovered the book, This is the Samoyed in which there were pictures of my beloved kind of dog.
I’ve never gone back to that quirky book store. I’m half afraid it’s closed. For while I love the big name book store, anyone who has ever seen You’ve Got Mail knows that the big name book store does not generally allow for the trend of small little bookstores. This, I can’t help but feel, is a tragedy. Because the flaw is that while big book stores are wonderful in their own right, they are mostly wonderful in the same way. A good book store lover will know how to capture the subtle differences. In some book stores; the religion section boasts more of a mystical side while in others the religion section becomes more intellectual. In some bookstores, the fantasy section will carry Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and a host of other Tolkien books like History of Middle Earth, Lays of Beleriand, and the Lost Road. The really good book stores have a score of Tolkien criticism as well. But mostly, between the main stream book stores, there is a kind of homogeneity that kills the soul.
Bookstores, you must realize, function not just as a seller of books but a way to reveal the personality of the town coupled with the eccentric and quirky tastes of the people who set it up. Does a group of people in one town share the collective passion of fishing? An eccentric book store would have subsections of fishing in its own large fishing section instead of relegating it to just one section. Does the book store owner have the secret agenda of plugging their environment into an unknown author whose work is going out of print and becoming more and more ignominious? The eccentric bookstore would have the audacity to display such an author’s work at the forefront of a store. And mostly, an eccentric bookstore would have the opportunity to provide a different atmosphere that is unique for the very sections and layout it provides. Just imagine the feel of touching a banister as one ascended up to the very heights of sections yet unimagined and yet unheard of. Would that not be the very way to capture the Lewis and Clark sense of adventure?
Perhaps this is an unfair judgment to make on big franchise bookstores though. Yet I’ve been places where the variety of bookstores has been like the fingers plucking at the harp strings of my soul. In Spain, I lived in an area where the bookstores were as plentiful and varied as the leaves on a tree. Some emphasized world literature, one was based entirely on tourism, and still another featured the more beach book variety. In London, I walked into the largest bookstore, supposedly the largest in the world, and it was in this bookstore that I found Letters from J.R.R. Tolkien and a commentary on Lord of the Rings -- books not carried in American book stores. These experiences coupled with the one bookstore in Columbus have always caused the smallest ripple of dissatisfaction with the big franchise bookstores that seem so alike to me. I, quirky person that I am, ache for the quirky bookstore.
Yet life is not without a sense of humor. It seems that whenever one learns the dissatisfaction with one opportunity, that opportunity is fast taken away. I am now living in a place where there is no big bookstore in the vicinity, not even much of any bookstore really (save one), and the ache for bookstores is like the ache to be reminded again that one is alive. I’m tentatively stepping in and out of the tiny college bookstore nearby. It was a bit of a shock at first because I’m such a sizist bibliophile and it hurts when there isn’t even different sections for tradebacks (like Fantasy and Science Fiction). And then, I suppose I’m still learning about bookstores – appreciating any really that sell books. Because I read an article the other day in which Amazon claimed that more electronic books were being bought than regular books already, leading to the possible implication that someday bookstores won’t even exist.
Maybe it’s time to try to plan a bookstore pilgrimage. Because as much as I mourn for the dearth of quirky bookstores, I grieve at the thought of a world without a bookstore.
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