Friday, July 3, 2015

A Farewell to the Big Bookstore

I have always loved bookstores, especially the little ones that hold hidden discoveries and the bigger independent ones that contain carefully selected stock of the essentials. In the not-so-old days, I even liked the mega stores, for a different reason: You could usually find the book you needed.

I love to find the out-of-the way stores, still, but it has also been a practice of my family to sometimes go to dinner and then to the big bookstore to pick up a new treat, especially as summer kicks in. But it's just not fun, for me, anymore. That makes me pretty sad.

I hear the remaining big bookstores are still doing well and I am glad. I'm also glad the book is faring well against the e-book. I realize, however, that they are doing well because they are stocking what sells: "Teen Paranormal" and various other popular series. As for the rest? Forget it.

If you are a real reader with a literary background, don't consider looking for an out of the way Theodore Dreiser; you'll find only Sister Carrie. Jack London? Forget The Sea Wolf; you'll find only White Fang. I suppose they need to save room for Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest installment of Young, Handsome Vampires on Prom Night. (Okay -- I made that one up.)

My kinda bookstore. 
I'm not trying to be curmudgeonly. I have no problem with light reading or with popular fiction. I just hate to see it push out the wonderland of undiscovered stuff I could once wander through at a Borders or Barnes and Noble. Last trip, I had a heck of a time finding something I wanted to read. I did wind up finding Vonnegut's Mother Night, which was an exceptional book, but this was only after I had slogged my way up to various other dead-ends in pursuit of authors whose work I wanted to explore more deeply. I had "settled" because Vonnegut was in stock in numbers few other top-notch authors are.

I understand that, from a business perspective, bookstores are doing what they need to do to survive and I would rather see them survive than bend to my stuffy will and fold -- I just wish it didn't have to be so.

So, now, it's either trips into the city (and good luck there, too, finding the little shops) or it's onto the web to get what I need. There used to be two little bookstores five minutes from my house. I just miss them and the trips on my bike, on foot or through the heavy summer evening air that made them feel like a cool conclusion to an occasional little quest.

I miss a lot of stuff, but I guess that's getting older.


  1. But don't forget there's that whole lovely parallel economy of the secondhand - whether it be books or clothing, I love it. Steerforth of course should be the first stop for secondhand books, although I'm not always keen to wait for things to be posted and so I prefer the non-digital world in the form of a place round the corner from me in Brussels called Pele Mele, where I head with a string bag and a greed for books that usually outdoes my ability to read all I buy there, (the mere acquisition of tempting volumes is a pleasure though, because you already imagine the fun they will give you when you get around to reading them, even if they do end up sitting on your shelves for a year or more first). In a world of too much choice - and of choice that is configured to some notion of the market rather than some notion of you the individual - I rather like the restrictions imposed by what's available secondhand. It is as if an anonymous hand has, to use the vogue term, 'curated' your choice, rather than a big corporation. Interesting you mention Theodore Dreiser - I bought a couple of his at a secondhand bookstore in Budapest and then didn't read them out of disgust, because both editions, I noticed when I got them home, were Soviet, and so I thought, 'If the Soviets approved of him, I don't want to waste my time reading him'. I will have to revise my approach and give him a go next time I'm there.

    1. Hi, Zoe -- I love looking through second hand bookstores, too - I just wish I had some nearer to me. I do need to check out Steerforth's wares. He is a humble sort who doesn't self-promote on his blog like I do, so I haven't found his book site yet. I'll have to make a better effort. As for Dreiser, I hated Sister Carrie, in high school, but with American writers I often find that the "deeper cuts" of their work is better. In terms of, say, Fitzgerald, I have never been a great fan of Gatsby, but I liked Tender is the Night very much. Here's hoping, with Dreiser (that Pinko) .

  2. Looking back, I'm struck by how brief the golden age of the bookstore actually was. In the early 1990s, when I was in college, a Borders opened in central New Jersey near my home, and I was stunned: shelf after shelf of "Medieval Studies" books alone. (My girlfriend at the time, visiting from another state, was so impressed with the place—books! coffee!—that she bought a souvenir t-shirt.) Before that, "bookstores" had been small places in malls that stocked only bestsellers. This golden age of the book superstore was over by 2008 or so, killed by the Internet even before the rise of the e-book. Only a few of us of a certain age are ever going to remember that such places existed, and that they didn't live past their teenage years...

    1. I guess, Jeff, it was a hiccup of anticipation of the internet market that was coming. Someone knew instant availability was the future, but didn't anticipate complete virtual connection. I remember that stunned feeling, too: "All these books in one place on one subject? Someone pinch me..."