Local Bookstores and the Writers Who Love Them

by James Matthew Wilson on January 12, 2010 · 27 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Writers & Poets

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Canterbury Books0001

Jeremiah Chamberlin (left) with co-manager, Dean Bakopoulos, in front of Canterbury Booksellers in 1998, which went out of business in 2004.

Devon, PA. My old friend and classmate, Jeremiah Chamberlin, writes in to the FPR ombudsman of a new venture he has undertaken to help support, save, or at least treasure, local bookstores.  It has been more than a decade since the massive expansion of Borders Books and Barnes and Noble fueled the inferno of the little local shops that had served as outposts and meeting places of literary culture for decades.  Those two large chains paid painful tribute to such stores by stealing or retiring their best attributes  (e.g. comfortable interior settings that encouraged browsing, lingering, loitering, and sleeping; organized events reflective of local interests; and, of course, knowledgable clerks — a species that seems to have become nearly extinct whether in the grocery store, at the meat counter, or elsewhere) while overcoming what, from an American consumer perspective, was a grave limitation, to wit, limited shelf space and the absence of discount large hot beverages with whipped cream.  This transformation of market and business topography garnered a lot of attention while it was underway, but a sudden silence fell and those times seem almost a dream in consequence of the other concurrent transformations – especially the rise of Amazon.com and the increasing functional illiteracy of Americans young and old — that divide us in 2010 from the 1990s.  Then, Amazon.com was still an unprofitable bet, the internet still novel, and novels still about something other than the cultural effects of the internet (I jest here, somewhat).

That said, the confident positivism of business schools aside, it is in the nature of any historical moment and of any aspect of it to be unpredictable.  Has a certain confluence of unanticipated circumstances made it conceivable once more that local bookstores are something other than a superannuated business model?  Retailers in general have found impressive, if not always happy, ways to adapt in the age of internet sales, while the entrepreneurs of the internet have had to discover, or reconsider, the obsolecense of so called “brick and mortar” businesses in order to make themselves profitable.  On the whole, I think these changes still amount to the destruction of small, locally owned businesses and of the kind of town centers that provide a place for culture and community to take root.  Our natural appetitiveness once again promises to undermine the conditions of our happiness — a conundrum of longstanding in regard to man’s love of God but of more recent vintage and more obvious sorrow in destroying the places where we used to live.  The series described below may provide clues to what kind of future we can hope for on these matters.

Jeremiah writes of a new series of interviews with the owners of local bookstores across the country, which he will be publishing in Poets & Writers magazine, and he includes details of a special offer for new subscribers to that magazine:

As a writer, bookstores have always felt like a home away from home. Whether in Michigan, Mississippi, or the left bank of Paris, the moment I walk through the doors of one of these shops I feel content. And welcome. And every time I’m in a new city, the first thing I do is browse the local independent bookstore. You find things in these places that you’d never discover anywhere else, because each store cultivates its own personality, ethos, and point of view.

So, as a lover of bookstores and a former bookseller myself, it’s been painful for me to watch these wonderful cultural institutions disappear. It’s estimated that in the last 15 years nearly 70% of independent bookstore have gone out of business. True, it’s not all bad news–the American Booksellers Association reported that 10 new shops opened between October and December of 2009. However, the sad truth is that this hardly makes up for the vast number of stores that have closed their doors. And with each lost store, we lose not only a place where people can browse for books, but also an important anchor of our literary communities.

In an effort both to celebrate these unique cultural institutions, and also to highlight the important role they play in our communities, I decided to undertake an interview series for Poets & Writers magazine. Starting in the current (Jan/Feb) issue, each one will feature a different independent bookstore from around the country. The first to be profiled is Square Books, of Oxford, Mississippi. And for the rest of the year–and hopefully beyond–I will continue traveling around the country, making my literary pilgrimage to both large stores and small, iconic ones and best-kept secrets, to those that have been open for decades and others that have just started up. And in an effort to build support for the series, Poets & Writers has generously agreed to offer a special subscription rate to the magazine: only $12 for a year.

You can read the first interview here.  You can receive a special discount on subscriptions to Poets & Writers here. That offer ends this week.

Jeremiah serves as an editor of the internet magazine, Fiction Writers Review, which furnishes an impressive number of reviews and essays on contemporary fiction.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar rufus January 12, 2010 at 4:39 pm

When in Hamilton, visit Bryan Prince Booksellers; if in Burlington, Ontario, visit: A Different Drummer Books; and if in Toronto, visit This ‘Aint the Rosedale Library. Which reminds me- “It’s estimated that in the last 15 years nearly 70% of independent bookstore have gone out of business.” 70% in the US or 70% worldwide?

avatar John Willson January 12, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Our local used bookstore, Volume I, run by an aging hippie, was kept alive last winter by the owner driving a cab in Ann Arbor for several weeks. A fine lady about my age told me last year that she and her husband had tried for several years to make a small book and news store work in a nearby town, but they couldn’t buy books for what WalMart could sell them.
Recently my wife and I came across two little gems of novels, both by Christopher Morley (longtime editor of the Saturday Review of Literature), Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookstore. If you want to read what we have lost in this little segment of our economy (and big segment of our literary culture), look them up.

avatar Empedocles January 12, 2010 at 9:00 pm

There needs to be a movement to repeal the ban on Internet taxes. With state governments so strapped for cash I am surprised the nation’s governors have not been making a bigger fuss to get the ban lifted. They would help the brick and mortar booksellers compete with Amazon. Then there needs to be a switch from sales tax to a tax on parking that will help small businesses compete with the box stores.

avatar eileen toolin January 12, 2010 at 9:09 pm

check out Circle Books when in Sarasota, Florida. A wonderful, independent bookstore.

avatar Joseph January 13, 2010 at 3:03 am

Preuming a sense of humor: The Poor Poet, a funny old painting,
by coincidence depicts the situation of bookstores, the ownders, all over the place. Existential ideas and strategies are needed, have
to be worked out.
http://socratesbooks.blogspot.com/2010/01/who-isnt-poor-artist-these-days-in.html

avatar D.W. Sabin January 13, 2010 at 10:13 am

One of the great things about field naturalism is you always stumble on the unexpected and sometimes this is merely interesting, other times it is a causal agent toward an insight that alters one’s tidily held conceits. Bookstores are just like this. While looking for something within one’s inventory of warmly held conceits, you frequently stumble upon something that diverts you down a path you would have never chosen but were fundamentally in search of.

With internet sales and big box categorization, this opportunity is frequently lost and one finds oneself in a very comfortable province of balkanized comfort….not a realm of discovery.

avatar Jeremiah Chamberlin January 13, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Thank you all for your interest in this topic. I was very happy when James asked me for a brief summary of my project, though had I known he was in possession of this particular photograph I might have reconsidered…

Seriously though, I’ve been very pleased by the response to the series thus far. And I especially love to hear about favorite shops from readers. It’s a wonderful testimony to how dear these institutions are to our communities. So, thank you for your comments and suggestions.

In response to Rufus, the figure for bookstore closures is with regards to US stores, to the best of my knowledge. Though, frankly, it’s very hard to put a figure on this at all because there are two different statistics at play that journalists cite: 1) The percentage of stores open at one time in the past 15 years that have since closed, versus 2) the number of stores operating today in comparison to how many were in operation a decade and a half ago. The former is probably close to 70%, and this is the number being quoted by booksellers. However, this figure doesn’t take into account new stores opening–just total closures. When that adjustment is made, the figure falls closer to 55-60%.

Still, that’s not much of a comfort. Because no matter how you look at the figures, the simple fact is that there are half as many bookstores in America today as there were a little more than a decade ago. More specifically, the continuing trend of the past five years has been that for every new bookstore that opens, approximately three go out of business. So we’re still dealing with a net loss.

And I entirely agree with D.W. Sabin’s point that what’s being lost is not just a place to buy books, but the opportunity to stumble upon the unexpected. Cass Sunstein wrote from a similar point of view almost a decade ago in his essay “Media and Democracy: A ‘Daily Me’ or a ‘Daily We,’” in which he argued that the ability of the internet to “customize” news and media for individual consumers (i.e., to “filter”) was an affront to democracy, because rather being forced to confront issues or topics that make us uncomfortable, we simply retreat to the echo chambers of our respective political affiliations. Or simply tune out all together.

Again, thank you for supporting this project and series. I hope you enjoy the interviews.

avatar polistra January 14, 2010 at 9:30 am

The only thing I ever “discovered” in local bookstores was a beady-eyed hostile stare from the radical lesbians who run them. I got tired of this hassle, so I was very happy when Amazon and Alibris came along. Far as I’m concerned, local bookstores have put themselves out of business in the same way that newspapers have.

avatar Daniel January 14, 2010 at 1:59 pm

“… and, of course, knowledgable clerks …”

You mean that nose and lip pierced, tattoo festooned lefty who looks down her nosering at you when you ask about a book by an outspoken conservative, and condescendingly suggests, “You might want to try Barnes & Noble for that kind of book.”

Here in Seattle, there are many independent bookstores, and only one actually has one employee that has read and recommends Russell Kirk’s fiction. But, by and large, censorship, in the form of not offering some books because they don’t fit the “progressive” narrative, is alive and well among the Lefties running the independent bookstores I’ve been to.

The magazine rack at Seattle’s Third Place Place Books, which actually has two stores, and Eliot Bay books is noticeably lacking conservative magazines (the sole exception being First Things, which I’ve seen at one Third Place shop). Looking for the latest copy of National Review, Weekly Standard, or American Conservative? Forget the herd of “independent” bookstores; better head on over to Borders or Barnes & Noble. Z Magazine, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne, etc.? That stuff is in every “independent” bookstore in town.

avatar James Matthew Wilson January 14, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Well, now we have two comments in a row that introduce a very relevant set of questions: a) Why are the denizens of nearly every precinct of American culture likely to be those least committed to any meaningful traditions of the true, the good, and the beautiful?; b) Why are there so few conservatives who “also happen” (to use the politically correct pseudo-speak) to own or work in bookstores? (or is the answer simply that booksores are part of the service industry and so simply attract the nose-ringed dregs instead of the single mothers and sundry other typical occupants of the lower and under class?).

I trust my conservative credentials are impeccable to everyone but neoconservatives and idiots, but I might also add in response to the above comments that I feel a mild twinge of regret. If Front Porch Republic becomes nothing other than an outpost for my brand of Catholicism and traditional conservatism, then I do not think it will be accomplishing the kind of work for which it was intended. To put it another way, no one has a greater reserve of loathing for the destroyers and parasites of Christendom than I, but surely a commitment to fidelity to our native places and the cultivation of them so that they afford the few material makings conducive to human happiness is a principle (or set of principles) to which most self-describes liberals and leftists can subscribe. Is their presence somehow a basis for the rejection of local ownership?

avatar Daniel January 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm

James,

Your credentials are good with me.

I too wonder why so few folks who truly appreciate America’s foundational values of liberty and personal responsibility own bookstores. I know at least one gentleman who does fit that description and who owns two Used Bookshops (perhaps not ironically named) BookMarx Bookstore. As to why so few on the Right take up professions in bookstores, I might point again to the ideology that dominates among booksellers. As they are not open to many right-of-center ideas in the books offered, they are not open to employing someone who, say, votes Republican and believes gov’t should be limited (not that those two things necessarily go together).

Being that I am rather underemployed, love books, culture and ideas I’d like nothing better than to take a job in a bookstore, right now, to help pay the bills. Yet the shops in my neighborhood are so incestuous in their hiring that I stand little chance (or is that a self-fulfilling prophecy – I guess I’ll have to put it to the test).

As to your question: “Why are the denizens of nearly every precinct of American culture likely to be those least committed to any meaningful traditions of the true, the good, and the beautiful?” The reality for which your query seeks an explanation is why Mike D’Virgilio, S.T. Karnick, and I are trying to get The Culture Alliance going as an organization that brings those committed to, as you so aptly describe, the meaningful traditions of the true, the good, and the beautiful into what we describe as the Cultural Influence Professions.

And just so I get this out there: I love going to independent bookstores as much as the next guy. My favorite shop in Colorado used to be Tattered Cover Books in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood. It gave up its lease in that area, relocated and opened several new shops. Now it has lost everything that made it distinctive and different from B&N and Borders. Furthermore, I’m more likely to hear from a writer I’m interested in at Seattle’s Third Place Books than at any of the so-called big box shops.

By the way, James, thank you for your series of essays at ISI’s First Principles web site. I’ve used excerpts and linked to them in the Weekly Update newsletter I put together for The Culture Alliance. They are truly informative and I greatly appreciate the work that went into them.

I also produce a Fiction Friday newsletter with reviews, news, and excerpts from novels and short stories that I can find online. All this is done on my own dime, in my own time, simply because I’m passionate for this stuff.

avatar Bob Cheeks January 14, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Brother Wilson, I have tears in my eyes. Your above comment worth a year’s subscription to the secret monthly FPR magazine distributed to the coterie of true believers.
I would n’er visit a “locally” owned bookstore less it be populated with commie-dems both considering but never actually buying a book and flitting about the cash register in a Bob Dylan tee shirt and loudly offering to “help” customers.
I’ve found that leftists who’ve enough bread and backbone to start a bookstore are close enough to paleo-conservatism to at least engage in civil discourse if not launch a full-blown friendship…though I did make friends with the local owners, primarily because I helped launch the local enviro/wacko, anti-incinerator group and wore a tee shirt sent to me from the nations depicting “the first Homeland Security” fellas.
So James, olde palsy, your conservative creds are impeccable as far as I’m concerned and our right, obligation, and opportunity to engage in a “near occasion of sin” while participating in public intercourse with our librul friends shall not be restrained by miscreant rightest who demand homage to their own perverse gods of political correctness.
You go Bro!

avatar D.W. Sabin January 14, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Having purchased a copy of Garret Garrets “Ex America ” at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and Burkes “Letter to a Noble Lord” at Powells in Portland …both liberal strongholds….and Russell Kirk in the Strand in New York as well as a fine copy of Burke’s Notes on the French Revolution at Shakespeare and Co. at Kilometre Zero in Paris, I can’t say I really give a rats ass what nit-picking, beret wearing voyeur might be interested in what I am reading at the point of purchase. We are all way too sensitive to retreating to the warm scent of the herd and maintaining tribal purity. To be honest, I did procure a copy of the Communist Manifesto while at Shakespeare & Co. just to have the little stamp on it from the font of Communist Confusion and Jacobin Idiotica as well as to give something to Burke to laugh at on the trip home but really now, everyone should read Marx in order to compare how close his observations are to the current sordid scene as well as to know thine enemy. Marx’s little tome sits next to my dogeared copy of “Guerilla Warfare” by Che Guevarra. If a few Conservatives had as much facility with a machete as Che did, we might not be watching the Republic descend into such torpid bathos.

Interestingly, conservatives generally prefer money making endeavors. Hence, you will find many in politics today….and arms sells. Security of course is a major Conservative area of emphasis. Wall Street is bi-partisan of course, hedging and shorting being so important there. After all, Shorting the Republic is Washington’s Chief Preoccupation today. In comparison, book stores would seem rather wanting for a conservative interested in returns on investment.

Actually , when somebody finds a conservative or a liberal, let me know, I’d like to see what they look like. I know Lawler considers this an unserious supposition but really now does anyone actually still think liberalism or conservatism is remotely relevant to the Beltway anymore? Octavian is sober in comparison. Caligula but a piker…his Horse a greater source of wisdom than the most respected partisan of either party today.

Cosmic Aeroplane in SLC is a fine place…a veritable temple to Ed Abbey. Atticus in New Haven, though limited in volumes has great food to boot and so is worth a trip…as is the little used bookstore up the street across from the Yale Rep.

Most musty antique stores have a few shelves that are always ready producers of cheap treasures…but antique stores are in decline as well now.

avatar Daniel January 14, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Sabin’s response reminds of a short debate I had with Greg Wright, editor at HollywoodJesus.com, over a piece I wrote at Sam Karnick’s The American Culture blog. Wright’s assertion was, effectively, “Hollywood Left?!? No such thing. Never seen one. Never met one. Sure there are a few folks with different ideas [than Wright's], but ‘Hollywood Left’?!? Where do their meeting house? What are the dues? Who filed their by-laws? Hollywood Left … Ha … no such thing.”

Lawler is spot on if he describes this attitude toward certain ideologies as an “unserious supposition.”

Furthermore, if there are no such thing as conservatives, then how does Sabin assert the following:

“Interestingly, conservatives generally prefer money making endeavors. Hence, you will find many in politics today….and arms sells. Security of course is a major Conservative area of interest.”

So I guess one can find conservatives, after all. Maybe its just looking for liberals that would be the Snipe Hunt D.W. asserts.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 14, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Daniel,
If, in the last several decades you can come up with a few and consistent good examples of honest Liberal vs. Conservative debate where the partisans are not speaking out of both sides of their mouth on a host of issues while the nation accrues mondo debt and crumbling infrastructure…we would not have to entertain ourselves with Snipe Hunts.

Perhaps it is a matter of imprecision on my part. I will grant you that there exist principled liberals and conservatives of serious mindset but they do not inhabit our professionalized politics. Professional Politics is like Professional Sports these days, a spectator phenomenon for a Spectator Culture. The Venue, it seems is getting a tad worn.

avatar rufus January 14, 2010 at 9:27 pm

I guess I’ve either been lucky in the book stores I visit, or books like The Aeneid aren’t as controversial as I’d like to believe. I do usually get a slight chill from local record store employees who apparently find my tastes to be a bit unsophisticated, but my usual response is to laugh about it on the way to my car. The teenaged lower functionaries at most stores are ill-mannered now, and it matters not a whit.

I will say that I attended a number of social gatherings with people my age (mid-30s) over the holidays and I got the impression that none of them were reading anything these days. It’s hard to imagine that the general decline in active literacy has played no part at all in the decline of bookstores. Even the big chain stores around here have gone from being solely bookstores to being candle, CD, and yoga mat dispensaries with a few shelves of books. The biggest chain in Ontario is Chapters, a bookstore for people who are slowly admitting to themselves that they don’t really like to read.

avatar John Willson January 15, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Sabin,
I’m one. The picture of me on this site should show you what one looks like. It’s a picture of a portrait done by a conservative artist. I’m getting more and more amused at the number of self-described intelligent people who want to abandon a good word. It doesn’t even bother me that neocons want to appropriate it–they won’t get away with it, nor will the enemies of those who wish to conserve good things. The unwillingness to accept a perfectly good label is snobbish, I think, and not always reflective of good grace. So what that it isn’t precise?

avatar J.D. Salyer January 16, 2010 at 11:32 am

The tendency for a lot of independent businesses to lean left (coffeeshops are another obvious example) points to one submerged challenge to localism: Money is not the only form of hegemony. I daresay that, deliberately or no, many self-professed “localists” take their intellectual cues from faraway celebrities who are “hot” in the academic & artsy scene, in much the same way that others may take their marching orders from Big Business or Big Government.

Of course the takeover of independent enterprise by the Left is something for which conservatives have only themselves to blame, as with the corruption of youth in general.

Some of my fellow officers in the Navy often referred to me as a “Commie” because of my habit of reading Dostoevsky in my off-time instead of wholesome all-American technothrillers. Admittedly the cracks were good-natured, but the irony should be clear, I hope.

For quite some time, the bulk of American conservatives have regarded the liberal arts and humane learning with indifference if not skepticism if not contempt.

Business, management, science, math — now *those* are the disciplines which make for both a strong country and well-paying jobs for our kids. Most of the self-described conservatives I know wouldn’t give Plato or Virgil or Samuel Johnson the time of day.

Then — having ceded the realm of tradition, character formation, and the imagination to the Left — these same folks turn around and wring their hands and wonder why their kids have taken to wearing nose rings and Che Guevera T-shirts.

Obviously this is not directed at anybody participating in this thread — but it is a general pattern. If anyone doesn’t recognize it, then I daresay he/she hasn’t met very many Republicans.

So obviously the lefties will be running and dominating most of the independent bookstores. How many conservatives are actually interested in reading anything aside from hagiographical histories of WWII, and the latest from Anne Coulter and Glenn Beck?

avatar D.W. Sabin January 16, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Willson,
As you know, I’m with you. Conservatives exist, proudly so. I can’t tell you how many times a friend and I do a little comedy routine about being “close-minded” after being called…heaven forfend…a “conservative” as though it were an insult.

My insults are cast the way of party politics as practiced currently. A discursive form of government needs principled liberals and principled conservatives . Unfortunately, while there is a lot of talk in Washington, it is no longer a discursive government.

avatar Bob Cheeks January 16, 2010 at 6:37 pm

“How many conservatives are actually interested in reading anything aside from hagiographical histories of WWII, and the latest from Anne Coulter and Glenn Beck?”
Dude, I’m paleo and reading Voegelin, Edith Stein, and Von Schelling!

avatar J.D. Salyer January 16, 2010 at 7:10 pm

And if the *typical* conservative possessed your inquisitiveness, Mr. Cheeks, America would be in far better shape. Paleoconservatives represent the conservative populace writ large in approximately the same way that Sir Thomas More represents lawyers.

avatar Josh Cooney January 19, 2010 at 11:20 am

Excellent post, Mr. Salyer.

avatar Steve Yates January 30, 2010 at 9:00 am

I’m thrilled that Jeremiah is on this case, both here and at Poets & Writers. For University Press of Mississippi, I keep a squidoo lens of independent bookstores in the state at http://www.squidoo.com/Mississippi-Bookstores

And the same for Louisiana at
http://www.squidoo.com/Louisiana-Bookstores

avatar Melanie Yarbrough March 3, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I think the state of the publishing industry can be measured by the state of the local bookstore. When people lose sight of its importance, then we should be worried.

I love my local bookstore! Harvard Bookstore: http://bit.ly/bixVm4

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