Bookstore as Accidental Meeting House

Jake Adam York
January 14, 2012
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This month, Black Ocean Books publisher Janaka Stucky argues (apropos of last month’s debate about Amazon’s promotion for customers who scan book barcodes in bookstores and compare prices) that “in order to survive, bookstores must stop trying to compete with Amazon.”

He explains:

Because in the 21st century, the service a bookstore provides isn’t just book-selling; it’s being the cultural center that book lovers need in their communities. Unless bookstores can not only acknowledge their role as beacons of culture, but really embrace that role and market themselves as such—as long as they try in vain to compete with one of the world’s largest retailers at its own game—they will slowly lose ground as they steadily morph into increasingly bizarre hybrids of book-music stores, bookstore-cafes, and bookstore–tapas restaurants, until they simply become businesses that sell the latest quirky breakout novel on the side to customers who’d rather pay $15 for a sandwich and a cup of coffee than for a book.

[Update 1/14: now Stucky’s article is also posted at the Huffington Post.]

It’s a great, and seemingly obvious, point that has been much on my mind over the last few weeks as my travels have taken me to two of the greatest independent/community bookstores in the country—Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and Open Books in Seattle.

It’s true, as Farhad Manjoo and others have noted, that from home one may have a little more draw with a credit card and an Amazon Prime account, especially if you’re working in a city (like Atlanta (!)) that has a few bookstores, but nothing major beyond the Barnes & Noble. But when you’re out of town, afoot, and looking for something to do besides eat a 1500-calorie fried shrimp salad or try oneighteen pairs of shop-window Ray-Bans—the bookstore is the kind of place where you can participate, if you want, in the quasi-public act of consumer acquisition or, instead, enter an anonymous conversation, another kind of exchange. Whether or not you’re talking to a clerk or another customer, you are looking for something that you will enjoy, and your interlocutor has to consider your interests in a very particular–one might even say–intimate way.

The bookstore is, then, Ray Oldenburg’s “third place,” a place that’s neither a home site nor a work site, a place for dynamic and social—and thereby creative—interaction.

When I’m shopping on Amazon, I usually know what I want, and though Amazon tries to fill my “cart” by telling me what other customers bought with the item I’m seeking, I usually don’t stray far from my target. In a bookstore, ones as eclectic as Square Books or encyclopedic as Open Books or Grolier’s, I find between my easy targets books I’ve not heard of, books I haven’t thought of for years, hard-to-find or extremely recent books, and I pile them up until I can’t carry any more, so my body is bound up with my reading. And while my dollar might bring me more books at Amazon, when I step to the counters of these third places, in signing the sales slip, I am, in some ways, bearing down so the store makes an even deeper impression in the world, one to which I can return.

Waiting for the reading to begin, just behind Danielle Pafunda.

When I do return, then, improbably, I run into someone I know. I’ve spent half a year of days in Oxford, Mississippi, during which I’ve come to know the owners of Square Books and several of the managers, who continue to recognize me and to show me things I’d otherwise miss. In a less familiar place, like Seattle, my trip (only my second) to Open Books doesn’t just intersect (as planned) with Erica Meitner and Beth Ann Fennelly, but as well with Danielle Pafunda and Katy Didden (Kenyon Review Summer 2011, y’all) and, of course, with John Marshall, one of the owners, who somehow remembers my face and searches for my discount credit in the card-file behind the register.

Such bookstores are wonderfully friendly places, and in some ways, for the reader, they’re like bars, like public houses, where you go and find your folks. Like our man Mr. Stucky, I think this is one of the main reasons we seek out, we visit, we prize, we covet, and sadly even mourn bookstores, and like Mr. Stucky, I think, we and our bookstores would all be a lot better off if we understood this better or at least a little more openly. Let Amazon scan all the barcodes it wants: if what you want is an envelope, you’ll get it better there, but if you want a conversation, an unexpected but nevertheless accountable recommendation, or just a friendly room in a distant town, these are the places where you’ll find them.

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