Nobel Laureate Alice Munro founded a bookstore in Victoria that is still open today. I’ve never visited it, but I hear it’s beautiful. For some reason, I keep returning in my mind that it would be cool to own a bookstore, or a café, or a bookstore with a cafe in it, which, these days, seems like a prerequisite. Why? Do I like carrying heavy boxes, managing spreadsheets, and operating a cash register? (What’s a cash register? Sorry, I meant a Square.) Do I find exciting the prospect of opening a business in a rapidly contracting industry? Do I think that managing a staff, interviewing baristas, and spending even more time communicating with the IRS would help me write more?
The answer to every one of these questions is, most certainly, no. But some successful writers have owned bookstores. Besides Munro, there’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti with City Lights, Larry McMurtry’s multiple locations in Archer City. I’ve been to City Lights, and it seemed filled more with tourists like myself than with the real bohemians that once haunted it: the drifter poets, the literate hobos, the college-dropout, soon-to-be famous, novelists. Perhaps this is what brings me back to the fantasy of owning a bookstore. The idea of being invested in a place, being part of some kind of “movement,” as corny as that may sound, is appealing in a way. The reality is, of course, that I just really like books; I really like coffee; and I like hanging out in bookstores. I don’t really need to own a bookstore to do these things. This is the point my conversations with myself and with my wife always come back to. But then a couple weeks later, or three months later, or a year later, one of us inevitably says to the other, “Wouldn’t it be so cool to own a bookstore?” And the other, inevitably, responds with an enthusiastic “Yeah!” As if we haven’t already had this conversation at least ten times.
For an English major like me, bookstores can have a sacred quality, the silence of a temple crowded with mythological or saintly figures, except in this place there are no statues or stained glass, only names of the demigods written on the colorful spines lining the shelves. Not that I want to be buried under a bookstore, but some of them have an effect on me–I want to stay there for a very long time. Others simply leave a strong impression, like the one in Florence wrapped around an empty, and excellent, Sardinian restaurant; the tourist trap of Shakespeare and Company, where I’ve never been so jealous of retail worker in my life (I’m pretty sure, based on the year of my visit, that the tall, blond guy behind the counter was Jeremy Mercer, who wrote a memoir called Time Was Soft There about working in the legendary bookshop); even the typical booksellers along the Seine, where I’ve never found a good book, but I always still look.
What will happen to these temples in the age of the e-book? I don’t know, but I don’t think people will stop reading, or buying, paper books anytime soon. Perhaps bookstores will generally become quite small establishments, housed in buildings where the rents on the upper floor subsidize the storefront. A few chairs and couches, not a comprehensive selection with every new release and bestseller, but each bookstore a highly idiosyncratic reflection of its owner’s preferences. Perhaps they will even seek, as did one movie theater owner I know of, nonprofit status and remain open through philanthropy and federal grants.
Maybe in the far future, there will be historical re-enactors who wear second-hand clothes, sit all afternoon with a strange ceramic cup of coffee and a brown-paged book, his face’s slight movements hinting at the delights and horrors that fill the pages. It wouldn’t be much to watch for the kids on the field trip, who are all staring at their handheld or implanted screens anyway, but a few of them would look up and stare for a second, silently, and long for that time long ago, when everything seemed so slow, so simple, so tangible, so real.