It’s small, but it has a nice personality

Kris Merino, over at Intelligent Life, just posted an article that mentions how some writers are claiming that indie bookstores are overrated. I agree with the general point such people make — reading is just as prevalent as ever, if not more so, and Amazon is a big factor in that. But I also react to people who pooh-pooh indie bookstores the same way I react to people who say that public libraries are obsolete (“we can get everything we need online, now”).

Bullshit. Here’s my opinion why.

When I was a kid, the only bookstores near us were the two in the mall: a B. Dalton’s and a Stacey’s. They were small, and they were crappy. They sold popular romance novels, bestsellers, and calendars, and that was pretty much it. We had a fairly nice library near my house — it wasn’t the Library of Congress, but it had what seemed at the time like a good young adult section, and a good selection of detective novels (I loved them, as a kid) — and that’s where I got most of my reading material.

I went to U. C. Berkeley for college, and the bookstores in Berkeley at the time were a revelation: I lived at Cody’s, Moe’s, and Shakespeare & Co. I wandered once in a while into the more expensive Black Oak Books (which had the most amazing used book section in the back — it was the same size as the front section. They would buy books used even in categories where they didn’t stock new, like Mathematics and Physics). If I made it through the tunnel to Solano Avenue, I would hang out at Pegasus.

Then I moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school, and I was back in B. Dalton land. Honestly, I think people forget these days how lousy the majority of bookstores that the American public had access to really were. What saved us? Borders. Barnes and Noble. Borders burst on the Pittsburgh scene my first or second year of grad school (along with Starbucks — sigh, yes, I’m that old).

Yes, people said the same things about Borders and B & N that we say about Amazon now. I said those things, too — how they couldn’t hold a candle to Cody’s or Black Oak. And it was true, but I still went to Borders, and I went all the time, because — guess what? — my beloved Cody’s was in Berkeley, and I was living in Pittsburgh. When the B & N moved into Squirrel Hill, it killed the mom and pop bookstore down the block. But you know what? I rarely went to that mom and pop, because it was basically a B. Dalton’s clone. It just wasn’t very good. And B & N was.

What Borders and Barnes & Noble provided was a wide, varied collection of books beyond just the bestsellers that many, many people never had access to before — people who hadn’t been living in New York, or London, or a university town. There were bookstores that did it better of course: the ones in Berkeley that I mentioned above. City Lights Bookstore, and the flagship Stacey’s (which was a great bookstore), both in San Francisco. The Stanford University Bookstore. I’m sure you all can add your own to the list. The thing that made a bookstore “great” at the time was a wide and eclectic selection, somewhere that had a good chance of having what you wanted, plus an open-minded staff that was willing to help you with special orders, even if what you wanted wasn’t quite in line with their book stock.

These are still great things, but Amazon has taken away their necessity. Amazon is one, big, giant special order service, and no physical bookstore will ever match the reach of their inventory. And so, Borders and B & N seem less important to our reading life now. Unfortunately, so do Stacey’s, and Cody’s and Black Oak — all of them are gone now, too, along with many other great indie bookshops.

But the smaller ones survive: Shakespeare & Co., Pegasus, City Lights. This makes sense to me, because the purpose of a bookstore now is to surround yourself with books, just for the sake of being there. If you want something specific, you’ve probably already ordered it online. As much as I loved Cody’s, it was so large as to be overwhelming, and I would usually retreat to the sections that I knew the best, the Math section in particular. I remember a similar feeling (only more so) the time I visited the flagship Barnes & Noble store in New York. The smaller ones are friendlier. The more limited choice available to you (as long as it’s not too limited) makes the shelves less intimidating.

One exception to this “bigger is more intimidating” rule was the late, great Serendipity Books, but Serendipity was its own special case. When you walked into Serendipity, you just trusted that the right thing would happen, and the universe would send you out the door with the book you needed to buy, at that moment.

I think the bad mom and pop bookshops have already succumbed to the big chains. The ones that survive are the good ones, the ones with personality — the ones you go to because you like them, not because you necessarily want to buy a book every single time. Not to say that big bookstores can’t have a personality — most good ones do — but in a small store, the personality manifests more easily, through its selection.

That personality doesn’t have to be flamboyant. Bookshop West Portal, my neighborhood bookshop, is what I’d call a “generic” indie — a little of this, a little of that. They host readings, and craft classes. Honestly, when they first opened, I didn’t think much of them. But then I noticed that I’ve never walked into that place without coming out with at least one book. And I’ve never walked in with a specific goal in mind, either. Usually I stop in because I’m walking past, and I see something interesting in their window. They don’t have a super wide selection, but somehow, their selection fits my tastes perfectly. They are like a trusted friend who recommends books she likes, from her own reading list. It won’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

On the other side is Borderlands. I’ve mentioned them before; they specialize in Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction. I don’t read sci-fi anymore (my husband still does, occasionally); I don’t read Fantasy with a capital “F” (though probably everything I read is fantasy, with a little “f”). My mood for horror fiction goes up and down, and tends towards the nineteenth and mid-twentieth century anyway, so I don’t keep track of who’s hot in that area. I can go for months at a time without buying anything there — but I still keep visiting, because I just like the place. I like the people, I like browsing the bookshelves even when I have no intention or desire to buy anything. When I do come across a ghost story writer that I want to buy, I always go there first, and I will recommend them to anyone who asks (or doesn’t ask!).

Okay, this is getting way long for what started as a throwaway post. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Amazon doesn’t make indie bookstores irrelevant, any more than Olive Garden or Il Fornaio make your neighborhood Italian restaurant irrelevant. It does force them to be better, or at least to pick a clientele. It’s not easy for them, but probably no mom and pop business ever was.

2 thoughts on “It’s small, but it has a nice personality

  1. Thanks for this. I was a little too annoyed when I saw blog posts about how indie stores are overrated to even read them. I just glanced over a few. I think your post just goes to show that they are totally needed. I love just walking around the neighborhood stores. I buy my notebooks from the independent bookstore a few blocks from my apartment even though I know they would be cheaper at a big chain store. I would rather throw in a few extra dollars for the wonderful experience they have always offered.

    • I think maybe the miscommunication, or whatever, is that those people who call indie bookstores “overrated” are confusing “relevance” with “moving the majority of books”. To take my restaurant analogy further, this reasoning makes McDonald’s the most relevant restaurant in the entire world. And maybe it is, but that doesn’t make “Barney’s Gourmet Burgers” down the street overrated.

      Physical bookstores will continue to be important to people who love books and fellow readers, for a long time to come.

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