Sunday, July 24, 2011

The bookstore as destination

The biggest challenge to brick-and-mortar bookstores will be the convenience of e-books, and the ease of shopping from one's home while wearing pajamas. But there are businesses whose out-of-home counterparts have survived in spite of the fact that there are easier, in-home options.

The prime examples of that are movie theaters and restaurants. People still go out to these places for social reasons; they're suitable for dates and for get-togethers with family and friends. Sure, you can watch a movie at home, and you can order take-out food and never leave your house, and both of those things are easier, but we look forward to going out as an occasion.

I've always felt that bookstores have a bit of that going for them. Those of us who like bookstores don't just like the shiny covers and the sweet-smelling pages of a printed book. There's just something special about a bookstore as a place, especially if it's a store with comfy chairs.

I grew up shopping in mall bookstores--places like Paperback Booksmith, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton. When I moved to Philadelphia, I also shopped at Encore and Doubleday, and later Borders. I always loved book shopping, no matter who owned the store. But when I discovered the independent stores, especially the used bookstores like The Book Trader, I thought I'd discovered heaven. I went alone; I went with friends. One of my favorite kinds of dates was dinner on a summer evening, followed by a sunset stroll during which we'd stop in the bookstore to browse and compare reading tastes.

When I did an internship in Atlanta, I developed a regular Saturday ritual of taking the bus down to Oxford Books, a gigantic store that actually took up two buildings, if I remember correctly. I always came home with the Philadelphia Sunday paper (because I was hunting for a permanent job back in Philly, and in those days you used newspaper ads, and Oxford Books got the Sunday papers from all over the country) and a stack of used books. The bookstore trip was my reward after the week's work, and I think Oxford was the first store I'd ever seen that had couches. (I decided instantly that every bookstore needs a couch.)

A friend and I make regular trips to Children's Book World in Haverford, and it's a social occasion as much as a shopping trip: we have lunch and then hang out in the store, browsing the stacks and talking books with the staff (who read everything!). I've been to poetry readings and community events at the Big Blue Marble , an independent store with wooden floors, a cafe, and employees who make the store an experience, not just a place to buy books. I've had book-club meetings and discussed staff picks and shelf talkers at Borders stores; I've been to educator events at Barnes & Noble. I've eaten in bookstore cafes. I've been to readings by authors I know personally and authors I only know of through reading their books. I never worry about meeting someone who's running late if our meeting place is near a bookstore. "Don't worry; I can easily kill half an hour in the bookstore!" Everywhere I travel, I try to visit the local bookstore, and I have bookmarks from all over the country to prove it. Every time we're in Portland, Oregon, my husband insists on trying to visit Powell's if we have any free time while the store is still open.

To my mind, if bookstores survive the digital age, it will not be because they shift to selling something other than books. It will be because people find these social, interactive aspects valuable. It will be because going to the bookstore is a fun occasion like going to the movies or out to eat. I don't know if enough people out there share my affection for bookstores as destinations, but I guess we will find out.

I'll leave you with the opening of a short story ("What You've Always Wanted") I once had published in a magazine called Thema:

"Livingston's New and Used Books smelled of paper and dust, of old wood that had spent decades near salt water, of the chocolates that Colton kept near the cash register. Livingston's was the kind of store that should've had a cat. It needed a cat so obviously that patrons would creep down the aisles, searching the corners and the highest shelves, waiting for that bookstore mascot to leap down on silent paws. The store did have a copy of Venus de Milo in the corner, a plastic barracuda nailed to one wall, and a stuffed gorilla sitting in a chair by the door, but it was haunted by the cat it didn't have.

"You reached Livingston's by following the twisted, tortuous streets of Boston to a dead-end alley. More than one patron felt the thrill of secrecy, as if the shop was their own personal discovery, unknown to the rest of the world. ..."

"Livingston's" is fictional, but it's a composite of every bookstore I've ever known and loved. I suppose that story was, in part, my love letter to bookstores.


  1. The movie theater analogy is perfect. Even with Netflix, people still go! I think author visits and book signings and food are all part of it. Great post.

  2. absolutely agreed on all points! xx

  3. Daisy, Angelina, and Sarah: Thanks for taking the time to comment! :-)

  4. Love the excerpt from your short story!

  5. Lovely excerpt. I, for one, share your affection for bookstores. While bookstores are going through a transitional period, I'm hopeful that the traditional book will stick around.

  6. Yes, Cynthia, to me the bookstore is more than just a place to buy something.