Behold the Bookstore

“The store was often empty for a couple of hours at a time, and then, when somebody did come in, it would be to ask about a book remembered from the Sunday-school library, or a grandmother’s bookcase, or left behind twenty years ago in a foreign hotel. The title was usually forgotten, but the person would tell me the story….Then, they would leave without a glance at the riches around them….A few people did explain in gratitude, said what a glorious addition to the town. They would browse for a half an hour, an hour, before spending seventy-five cents.”

The words were written by Alice Munro and published in a novella called The Albanian Virgin” by the New Yorker magazine in 1994. They came to mind because Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief 1978 novel about an unwanted bookshop, The Bookshop, was recently released in as a film starring Emily Mortimer (familiar to US audiences from her role in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom series).

Roaming around Manhattan yesterday, and wandering into a wonderful neighborhood shop called The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side. It was a pleasant place to spend an hour, and spend money on two books (one about architecture for me, one about birds as a gift). Perhaps pleasant is the wrong word. It was an irresistible place to spend an hour because the books were fetchingly arranged to capture my imagination.

The role of the contemporary bookstore isn’t very different from its role a century ago. It’s a fine place to explore ideas and stories, to examine the cover art and the typography, to physically handle the books and enjoy their new-ness. Certainly, Amazon has changed the plumbing, but the relationship between book and consumer, and book and reader, would be familiar to Dickens, or for that matter, Mao (who once was a bookseller).

I know that because of Jorge Carrión, who published a book last year called Bookshops: A Reader’s History, a product best enjoyed when and if purchased from a local bookseller. It’s fun to travel the world with Carrión, and to travel through history, too. There is no true beginning to the journey, but the author contemplates the importance of the great library at Alexandria as a kind of starting place for available collections of printed works. He’s unsure whether Librarie Kauffmann in Athens is still in business, but he tells the story anyway: it grew from a book stall selling second-hand goods, then became the center of thought, literacy and enlightenment for French speaking families, scholars, and intellectuals in Athens in the 20th century. He describes it as “one of those bookshops to get a stamp on your imaginary bookshop passport.”

William Thackery probably shopped at 1 Trinity Street in Cambridge, a site that has sold books for about 600 years, but necessarily to the public. In Krakow, there’s Matras, which used to be called Gebether and Wolf, and it dates back to the 1610, though not with an entirely continuous history. P&G Wells is probably the oldest bookstore in England–this Winchester shop can show you receipts dating back to 1729. Click on the picture to visit their modern website.

History is well-captured in this September 26, 1786 bit from Goethe, written in his journal published as Italian Journey:

“I had entered a bookshop which, in Italy, is a peculiar place. The books are all in stitched covers, and at any time of the day, you can find good company int he shop. Everyone who is in any way connected with literature–secular clergy, nobility, artists–drop in. You ask for a book, browse in it, or take part in a conversation as the occasional arises. There were about a half dozen people there when I entered, and when I asked for the work of Palladio, they all focused their attention on me. While the proprietor was looking for the book, they spoke highly of it and gave me all kinds of information about the original edition and the reprint. They were all acquainted with the work, and with the merits of the author.”

What fun–it’s easy to imagine finding myself in the very same situation.

There is now an assortment of books about bookstores on my home shelves. One illustrates favorite bookstore facades in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Another describes favorite booksellers with stories about the stores and the people who inhabit them. I haven’t started to list or photograph bookstores that happen along the way as I travel, but Aqua Alta in Venice would certainly deserve a mention because you can climb a pile of books for a look at the adjacent canal. Scrivener’s in Derbyshire is probably worth a trip to England just to browse a few tens of thousands of volumes, but that should probably be scheduled to coincide with a day or a week in Hay-en-Wye, in Wales, which is an entire town devoted to bookshops and things literary. It’s now one of several book towns around the world. And yes, there is a book about these book towns–I very nearly bought it yesterday at The Corner Bookstore–and for course it’s called Book Towns. Someday, because I am now reading far too many books and articles about books and the places where you can bu them–I will visit Argentina. That’s because Jorge Carrión, and others, have told me about a spectacular old movie theater that is now a bookstore called Ateneo. Between now and my visit, I will need to learn to read Spanish, but that won’t stop me from browsing.

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Posted in an independent bookstore

One of New Hampshire’s three Toadstool Bookshop outlets. They’re located in Peterborough, Keene, and Milford. If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to visit the one in Keene, and then grab a beer and a burger (and gigantic onion rings) at Elm City Brewery, located in the same large ex-factory as NH’s best bookstore. With ebooks, there’s concern for the survival of even this fittest of independent booksellers.

“PLEASE THINK TWICE BEFORE YOU BUY A KINDLE

We are very grateful to all of those of you who have said you would like to support us by purchasing your e-books through us. This will become extremely important to us as more and more people begin using e-readers. We ask that you please bear in mind that only certain types of readers are compatible with our website. Fortunately, most of the common ones are. These include the iPad, Nook, Sony, and Kobo. However, the Kindle is not compatible.

Amazon has chosen to force Kindle users o make their e-book purchases only through their website.

Please think twice before getting one for yourself or for a gift. The future of independent bookstores such as our depends upon every sale, the physical book and the e-book. None will exist without the support of loyal book buyers such as yourself. Thank you so much for thinking about us, and be assured our love remains [for] the real book, there for your browsing in a real bookstore.

(Kindle Fire update: With Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet, it is possible to sideload an Android app that make it possible to purchase and read ebooks from the website of independent booksellers such as ours. But you do have to do this outside the Amazon App store. This will not work with the original Kindles. B&N’s new tablet Nook also requires a sideloaded app.”

Some other thoughts about Amazon and its relationship to independent booksellers:

Slate: Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller

Harvard Business Review: Amazon Should Partner with Independent Booksellers

Huffington Post / Poetry Foundation: Independent Booksellers: How to Compete with Amazon

and the most comprehensive and thoughtful view, written for The Nation: The Amazon Effect

Bye Bye Bookstore (Mea Culpa)


I love bookstores. Also, record stores, art supply stores, just about any kind of store where creative work defines the merchandise.

And, I’ve been fortunate because there are three good independent bookstores less than a half-hour from my home: one in the county seat, one in a town dominated by tourists, and one in a university town that’s also an easy drive (plus, several more that sell used books).

Unfortunately, this month, we’re losing the neighborhood bookstore that’s just five minutes from home. They didn’t make it. They cite e-books, internet bookstores, and the nearby Barnes & Noble (the nearby Borders closed a few years ago). The economics confuse me. Maybe you can make sense of it all.

My family buys a lot of books: probably 40 or 50 books each year. We buy more books, for personal use, than anybody we know. Assume 50 books at $20 per book, and that’s $1,000 in retail business per year. I would be proud to say that we’ve bought all of them from our local independent booksellers, but I can’t say that because it’s not the truth. It would be fair to say that we’ve bought about 1/4 of those books while traveling (we especially like Toadstool Bookshop in New Hampshire, for example), and half of them online because of the convenience, price, or quick delivery. The other 1/4, we probably buy locally.

One good example: a biography of the old superstar, Will Rogers, priced at $24.95 in paperback from a local bookstore, available for $16.47 from Amazon (with free shipping). We’re smart consumers–we saved $8.48 because we bought from Amazon. In a year, we make this decision maybe 20 times, so maybe we save $200 per year by buying this way. As I said, we’re smart consumers.

But we’re stupid citizens. Our extra $200 per year matters to a local bookseller. If 100 customers paid the higher price instead of saving the money, that’s an additional $20,000 per year for the local bookseller. If 1,000 customers, the additional revenue nears a quarter-million dollars.

So here we are, all of us, the book lovers and the book consumers, happily saving money by shopping late at night and taking advantage of super saver shipping and the deep inventory that online booksellers provide… all the while forgetting about our neighbor, the small business person, who is spending every late night trying to figure out how to keep the local bookstore’s doors open.

When I think about this, I feel stupid. As I said, I really like bookstores, but just this morning, I ordered two books from Amazon, and I saved $7.33 on one of them and $15.78 on the other. This afternoon, I thought about visiting my local bookstore, the one that has been five minutes away from my house for the past few years.

It was closed.

I feel foolish. Why didn’t I do more to keep a community institution in place?

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