May 20, 2011

Judging a bookstore by its cover

Small, independent bookshops have a better chance of survival than corporate chains.

A bookstore going out of business is usually a bittersweet occasion. On the one hand, there are DISCOUNTED! BOOKS! to be had. On the other hand, the neighborhood loses a business that people depend on. My feelings as I walked through the now-shuttered Borders on East 53rd Street last winter didn’t really tend towards either. Maybe it was the depressing state of the store itself, with its half-barren shelves in disarray. Perhaps it was the fact that by the time I arrived, the selection of DISCOUNTED! BOOKS! had been reduced primarily to diet guides, self-help books and copies of America by Heart (sorry, Sarah). Whatever it was, I didn’t feel like I was going to miss it.

Had it been any other literary establishment in Hyde Park, it would have been different. The Seminary Co-op’s labyrinthine corridors, 57th Street’s elaborate staff recommendation cards, Powell’s free box, O’Gara and Wilson’s mannequin in a monk’s robe that nearly gave me a heart attack the first time I tripped over it—all have unique characters that have endeared them to Chicagoans for decades. Borders was just…a shop. No more, no less.

Much has been made recently of Border’s spectacular financial collapse and how it signals the beginning of the end of the brick-and-mortar bookshop. After all, why would anyone walk to the store when it’s so easy to have volumes shipped to your door, or downloaded instantly to your Kindle?

I have a confession to make: I wouldn’t. Not, in any case, to a place like Borders, cast from a generic, corporate mold like thousands of others. Your other options are just too easy. We shouldn’t completely count out booksellers entirely, however. It is an experience, rather than books, that bookstores are being forced to sell now. In that arena, I don’t think the giants can compete with the little guy. Living in a world in which the corner store has been replaced with the crisp, clean, focus-grouped and boring, it’s refreshing to come across those quirky, local places with a real story to tell, a sense of time and place. You can’t find that at a Borders.

But maybe you don’t care too much about atmosphere. You are there to buy books and get out. That’s O.K. However, if you want to be exposed to new, good reads, there’s a process of literary discovery that happens more frequently at an independent bookstore than a big-box (and is damn better than some algorithm crunching variables at Amazon headquarters). When was the last time you saw a recommendation card taped to a bookshelf at a shopping mall bookstore? I’d wager never.

I’m not by any means saying there aren’t people there who know their books—just yesterday, someone at the campus Barnes & Noble stopped and told me in no uncertain terms that the copy of Ulysses I was mulling over purchasing was not the right one. Yet that felt more like the exception rather than the rule.

By contrast, at many small, independent (one could even throw around the word “pretentious”) booksellers, the staff sees it as their job to point you in the right direction. Some of the best conversations about literature I’ve ever had in my life weren’t in class or at the dinner table, but with staffers at the Strand Book Store in New York, whose “18 miles of books” constitute one of the most intimidating, thrilling, and addictive shopping experiences in the Western Hemisphere. The people who work there are surly, standoffish, and absolutely sure they’re better read than you (they’re right), but they also have the sacred, self-appointed responsibility not to rest until they’ve found you the perfect book. Of course, there have been many times when I have gone into the shop and found books on my own—but there are so many others lining my shelf that I would not in a million years have come across without their sage advice.

So overall, forget the inevitable columns that come out every time a new e-reader launches about how bookstores are becoming obsolete and going the way of the local blacksmith and haberdashery. Yes, the economics of publishing are looking pretty bad for books of the paper and glue variety, but consider a parallel case: the recording industry. Nearly all music is now purchased online, yet walk around areas like Wicker Park and you’ll see plenty of storefronts stuffed with vinyl. Independent record stores have remained vibrant because they form unique communities with distinct social scenes, weathering the digital revolution where big corporations like Tower Records could not. Likewise, we may be seeing the end of the giant reading emporium, but I have hope the neighborhood bookstores will live on; they’re too special to us. So the next time you have a musty paper craving, turn off your Nook, cancel that Amazon order and take a walk up East 57th Street. Even if you don’t find what you’re looking for, you just might return with a good story of your own.

David Kaner is a first-year in the College.