A few days ago a locally-based independent bookstore announced that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, about a week after announcing it would close two of its stores in Charlotte and Pittsburgh. Now, Joseph-Beth will also close stores in Cleveland and Nashville.
I work in a locally-owned (not -based, nuance) independent bookstore, and I do not relish this news. Joseph-Beth's Lexington store (their flagship) will remain open. So that's good. This town has several book stores, and I believe it's a big enough town that we can all co-exist.
The announcement last week got me thinking about the nature of bookstores. Say what you will about digital media and "the death of print," but there is still a place in society for bookstores. One of the common complaints I've heard about Joseph-Beth is that it sold so much besides books. "It's like a gift shop that has books," is the refrain. That kind of store has its place for sure. But Joseph-Beth and Barnes & Noble are such big places that when you go it becomes a "shopping experience."
The bookstore I work in is small. Many people think that it is a used bookstore, because they are not used to seeing such a small bookstore with new inventory. And at least once a week, we have a customer who says "I had no idea this place was here!" or "I'm so glad I found you!" and that feels really good.
About a year ago, my friend Nick wrote a piece for a local weekly alternative paper, and he spent some time at the Morris book shop talking to my manager, Hap. The resulting essay was long, but what Nick wrote stayed with me: the idea of a bookstore as a cultural commons. Here's a PDF link to the paper the article was in. (The article starts on page 5; incidentally, there is an awesome review of the Twilight series by another friend on page 1.) Here are some choice phrases that Nick wrote about the place I work:
Local bookshops are able to
provide the interpersonal intimacy
absent from the digital realm. More
specifically, a transaction at a shop
like Morris establishes a relationship
beyond mere commodity, or informa-
tion, exchange. The shop is a nexus
for community interests, interests that
one shouldn’t have to—even virtually—
leave his or her community to explore.
Its connective tissue is simply people
(who are your neighbors) and books.
There’s no telling what will happen
to the printed word in the future, but
places like Morris needn’t worry any-
time soon. By providing a venue for
the community to educate itself and
learn about one another, it connects
to its customers by establishing bonds
that transcend typical commodity
transactions. While its fate is beholden
to the industry it operates within, it
sees itself—and deserves to be seen—as
something greater than a middleman.
Nick wrote some good anecdotes about that afternoon he spent at the Morris book shop, so if you have a few minutes, the entire article is worth a read. What I've quoted here is the crux of it, however. A bookstore is a gathering place for ideas. Sure, coffee helps. But we don't have coffee at the Morris book shop (yet), and I have to tell you, I have been privy to — and participated in — some incredible conversations over the past 18 months that I've worked there.
I'm not so starry-eyed as to think that these kinds of "cultural commons" discussions don't happen outside of small, independent bookstores. Of course they do. Connections are made all the time, in all kinds of places. But places like the Morris book shop, or Third Street Stuff and Coffee, or Coffee Times, or the Co-op have an intimacy that larger stores do not. These are community-oriented, locally-owned places. Their patrons are community-oriented as well. These are the places where ideas are discussed, fleshed out, perhaps even come to fruition.
I've no doubt that Joseph-Beth was once this kind of place. And I think as we move forward, we need to look back to a time when homogenization was only something you associated with milk. There will always be chain stores and restaurants. Some folks crave the stability of having the same offerings no matter what city they are in, and I kind of get that. But in our own towns, let's embrace the local joints: not only are they motors of the economy, but that's where stuff really happens.