Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Random Thoughts on Bookstores: Independent vs. Superstore vs. Internet vs. ... ??

Tyler Cowen's What Are Independent Bookstores Really Good For? (Not Much), at Slate, prompts me to reflect. Here are some personal observations, in no particular order:

I'll start with the obvious: I love books. I love their compactness, and I love their heft. I delight in the ever-changing gallery of book-covers. I like the ineffable potential of each square little package: should you open the cover and begin reading, you may hear the whisper that allows you to keep going; you may encounter the bomb that changes everything. (Or you may simply fall asleep -- and isn't that also a gift?) My grandfather, who I never considered a particularly bookish man, said if a book contained one good idea, it was worth buying. I've taken that maxim to an extreme that's probably got him spinning, but there it is.

I love bookstores. Can't stay away from 'em. In fact, I like them more than I like reading the books themselves. Row upon row of fancy new-fangled, candy-coloured potential. I frequently dream of ancient, creaky bookstores with tall, bowed shelves full of books with every word metaphysical glow-rod. The scenario is a terrible delight -- salvation and damnation within four walls.

In the last four years, I've bought most of my books from a superstore. The stores are easy to find, they've got parking, and when you're facing that many books, there's bound to be something with appeal.

Most of those books were remaindered. Let's see: hardcover for $4.99, or paperback for $11.99. What to do, what to do... Unless we're talking about a friend's publication (where sales figures and royalties count for something), or Neal Stephenson (I can't believe I lugged The Confusion with me on a Montreal weekend!), the choice is obvious.

I purchased most of my "new" books on the internet. By and large, the internet discount is even better than the one I had as the employee of an independent bookstore. Which leads me to observe that...

I loved working in an independent bookstore. It gave me the opportunity to do just about everything: read and review books (on my own time, of course -- no myth is further from the truth than the hoary "Oh, it must be so nice to work in a book store: reading all those books!" If you've got time to read books on the floor, your store is doomed); shake hands and talk with the author (and meet the occasional celebrity); unpack and add books to the inventory (twice a week, it felt like Christmas!); converse with customers and make recommendations (and receive in kind); write ad-copy; answer phones (okay, not so much)....

If an independent bookstore is within walking distance, that's where you'll find me. I especially like the ones whose shelves are papered with written recommendations from the staff -- like tickets on a prayer-wheel.

When I'm in an independent, I'll make a point of buying something new at the cover price. Just so I can say, "I gave at the office."

I've almost always found the best books in the strangest places. Our town has a caffe-bookstore, where I picked up this collection of James Salter's short stories. I most certainly did not expect to find this book in my town. Kewl, no?

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