We are talking about bookstores this week. I was pretty-well grown before I ever set foot in an actual bookstore, although as a kid I had a vague mental picture that bookstores were enchanted places, filled with old dust-covered volumes of wondrous words and worlds, if only you had the time to search their haphazard stacks. I suppose my ideas came from old movies. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a modern , well-lit, clean store with shining books on modern shelves…and imagine my disappointment. Whatever romantic thoughts that dissipated on sight were soon replaced with the discovery that bookstores were still enchanted places of wondrous words and worlds.
In the United States, the big name, chain bookstores have taken over many smaller shops and that is not always a bad thing. They brought with them the idea of relaxed browsing, allowing people to sit and read without buying, although most people do spend money there as well as time. There are coffee shops and cafes within the stores and authors come in for readings and book-signings; sometimes there is live entertainment.
These additions have inspired some of the remaining individual bookstores to imitate them. It is unfortunate that many smaller shops cannot compete with the chains if they are in their area. The chains can advertise and bring in big name authors. They can afford to bring in more stock and stock out-of-town newspapers and more, varied magazines. Now, more publishers are re-printing many classics and the chains can put them on the shelves as well. I have bought affordable copies of the entire works of Shakespeare, Wilde, Hemingway, etc. I have found dictionaries of literary allusions and a variety of terms. I have browsed cookbooks galore to find ones that have what I like and what could teach me, as we have with art books, history books and those on other topics. My husband and I have spent many hours in chain stores in neighboring towns where they are open late, (often our last stop when shopping),perusing the stacks and shelves, finding volumes that would add to our lives and are in our interests. I also enjoy going through their selections of magazines from all over the country and the world, those that criss-cross all interests. It helps anyone who wants to write for magazines, it is what they need to do; read issues of whatever publication to which they want to submit their work. One could spend a fortune sending for back issues only to find that the writer and magazines are not a good fit. And writer can ‘tweak’ a work after reading a target publication to make it work for the publisher , which is possible only after reading and getting the tenor of the publication. I will pick up a number to read.
I do lament the loss of many small bookstores, though. Within the last couple of decades many folded when they could not compete and people just did not have the time to seek them out; it seemed that everyone was too darned busy to read. Enter the resurgence of reading. E-readers have had some effect on that, but they are our topic for next week. People have simply found reading to be ‘in’, or as one of my favorite authors posted on Facebook the other day: “I read before reading was cool”; that could be my motto.
If only some of those the smaller bookstores cold have waited, they could also have sold their books online and held on to their business as most of those who made it through “drier” times are now doing, Many have survived by imitating the bigger stores again and offering other wares, like candy, trinkets, hand-made and locally produced items, or those of special interest.
Unfortunately, I have no chain or much of a need-to-compete store near me. Our one bookstore does not sell any magazines at all. The local chain grocery and big discount stores sell pulp books and the magazine racks are large, but the topics are narrow; they carry only celebrity, ‘true’ confession, handicrafts, men’s interests,( racing, hunting, bodies and cigars), a few types of puzzle books, a couple of modern ‘gourmet’, and the old little-housewifey’ type magazines. There is nothing literary and nothing out of the ordinary; in other words, nothing intellectually stimulating.
A few people have tried to run used bookstores here, actually book-exchanges, if you will. You may know the type: folks take pulp paperbacks in and are given credit if the authors’ names are big enough to take out a comparable amount in a comparable genre, usually mystery and romance. They didn’t work; the exchanges were not even and they became libraries. The support just isn’t there.
I admit to buying used books…often. I wish I had the old-dusty bookstores where I could treasure-hunt. I hear that they still exist, but most of my purchasing is done in charity thrift-stores and yes, online. I feel really bad about some of it, especially the online purchases of used books that are still in print and available. Never do used books pay royalties to the authors or to their publishers. I truly want authors to get their just wages and to keep their publishers in business, which is why I am adamantly against piracy. ([I have made enemies of people who want to copy books, music, etc. I was once asked if copying was a ‘sin’. Yes, it’s theft and it denies a worker his just wages. It is a sin that cries out to Heaven. So there!)
With all that said, a serious thought of mine is to run a bookstore, an independent one, with my former business partner, my niece, who is also and avid reader and sometime writer. We could open a little counter or cafe and do some of the specialty baking and cooking we did when we had out bakery /restaurant, only on a small, please-ourselves-scale.. We could have discussion groups , pull in our favorite authors for book signings and roundtables and…and that would take us being independently wealthy and without any need to be concerned if the business made money or not, because here, I doubt very seriously that it would. But we’ll keep buying our lottery tickets, because if the words and worlds contained in bookstores have taught us anything, it is to dream … and that anything is possible.