What Have They Done to Bookstores?
I don’t need to tell you why bookstores are disappearing. We all know about the large online book retailers who can undercut the prices of any brick-and-mortar store. The economics of it don’t interest me as much as the loss of what those old bookstores represented. I’m forced to ask, where will all the introverts go?
In my childhood, there was a comic book/psychedelia/bizarre bookstore called Monkey’s Retreat. For me, the name says it all. In my head, “monkey” meant outsider, which meant me, which meant that this place was designated as my retreat. And I retreated there at least once a week for five years.
I picked up a bunch of my personality traits there. I read the underground comics and bizarre books. I marveled at the handmade bust of Swamp Thing that Stephen Bissette had personally given the owner. I listened to the music they played and bought Sub-Genius books and Mondo 2000 and learned the lesson from their conversations to take anything “the man” told me with a grain of salt.
You see, Amazon has all those books, but the power was in having someone select the books they sold and having them sit right there waiting for you. There was never a question about what you should read next, it was right there waiting for you. Carefully, or perhaps carelessly, selected and displayed on wire shelves erratically placed on bare concrete floors. The books were your peer group.
It was made by introverts, for introverts. You could go there and be by yourself no matter how crowded it was. That’s what a bookstore is supposed to be.
Today I went to Borders to do some Christmas shopping and to just get lost in the shelves for a moment. I’ve been reading a lot on my Kindle lately and I missed the smell and feel of books. First, I checked the magazines, but it was mostly homeless people and a guy that wanted desperately to stand too close to me. I couldn’t figure out if he was doing it because he wanted me to leave or he wanted me to stay. I bolted for the fiction section, weaving through a table display of “Nightmare Before Christmas”-branded Jenga games and other strangely un-book related paraphernalia.
In the literature section, I was accosted by an employee from their coffee bar offering me a hunk of peppermint brownie and a tiny cup of eggnog latte in a loud voice. I whispered that I didn’t want any, trying with all my heart to communicate that he was rousting me from my private book reverie. In fact, he started to chat with me. Not about books, but about clothes or something. I excused myself and bolted like a surprised squirrel to the graphic novel section.
There, a very nice employee cornered me to find out exactly what I was looking for, she could tell me where anything was and it would help me be on my way faster. I know they weren’t trying, but it sure seemed like they wanted me to leave. They were nipping at my heels with kindness and extroverted conversation, forcing me out of the store and back on to the street.
This is what they’ve done to bookstores, I thought as I squeezed past a display of Oprah-recommended books. They’ve given up on their core constituency and are working to attract a new customer base: People who want customer service and come in looking for something specific and want to leave early. It’s no longer a place where people go to be alone together.
I’m grateful I live in Seattle, where I have other book shopping options. I can wander around Elliott Bay Books with no fear of being accosted with samples. I can go into Twice Sold Tales and discover a whole shelf of books for magicians because a local magic enthusiast just died and his collection came into their possession. Of course, those books will be covered in cat hair and smell funny, but that’s part of the charm.
I was going to end this by repeating my question of where all the introverts will go now, but I know the answer. They stay at home. They play video games together online, they have their groceries delivered, and they don’t buy their books from a bookstore.