As a localist and a voracious reader, it is only natural that I would be deeply devoted to my local independent bookstore. Here in Lawrence, KS, that bookstore is The Raven. It has been a wonderful community resource, a purveyor of fine literary fiction, and the host of many writing-related events. It is a place where I have gladly handed over many hundreds of my dollars in exchange for books I continue to cherish. In Lawrence, where the unique and distinct flavor of our college town is prized above most other things, it has been a beacon for localists like me.
In the last two years, however, something has happened to The Raven and to many other independent bookstores I have frequented. It is a two-pronged development, rooted in a misguided notion of national “resistance” and a cultural aesthetic that threatens to homogenize what little local flavor we have left in the Midwest.
Recently I took my four-year-old in to spend some of his birthday money on—what else?—a new book. I am a firm believer in large kids’ sections in bookstores, places where dragons and pirates and talking bears can exist untrammeled by adult concern and enchant the lives of young people. These sections should be full of pillows and toys, Pooh and Piglet, knights and tall-masted ships. They should be places of imagination and remove, where a kid can be a kid and not a “young adult.” The workaday concerns of adult life—the paying of bills, the sniping of partisans—should not rear their heads in this section.
But at this beloved bookstore, the kids’ section has become something more like a space reserved for adult virtue signaling. Feminist Baby is displayed prominently. The Golden Thread: A Song for Pete Seeger crowds out old favorites, while books by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton alike sit next to stories about the Obamas. Worst of all is the truly execrable A is for Activist, a board book for children who don’t know up from down but who are deemed ready for the lessons of progressive agitation (“L-G-B-T-Q/Love who you choose!” is a representative sample). This book surely rivals the loathsome “Coexist” bumper sticker as the apex of unthinking, starry-eyed progressivism. Even calling it a “book” feels somehow wrong; the children’s book reviewer in The Wall Street Journal got it right when she called it “a vanity project for adults.”
Our college towns, for so long the most distinctive cities in Midwestern states, have all become different versions of one Portland-inspired boilerplate.
Why must we do this to children? Before we know it, they will be thrust into the world of adults. Can we not give them a few years of fancy and imagination? This compulsion, in which we turn children into props in our carefully stage-managed lives of activism of all stripes, feels deeply misguided. The larger problem, though, is that this scene has repeated itself at other independent bookstores in other college towns—such that the display in Lawrence is the same as the display in Iowa City, Columbia, and Lincoln, all of which aspire to mimic the culture of Madison and Austin. Our college towns, for so long the most distinctive cities in Midwestern states, have all become different versions of one Portland-inspired boilerplate.
The writer Kyle Chayka gave name to this concept in an essay for The Verge: “AirSpace.” He used the term to describe the uniformly minimalist aesthetic that pervades “vibrant” neighborhoods around the country. “It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live/work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless,” he writes. It is, as one person he talks to notes, like a nationwide extension of Ikea showrooms.
Crucially, though, AirSpace is not limited to architecture and design. It applies to lifestyles as well, and it has crept from the structural to the cultural. Consider the Travel section of the Sunday New York Times, which each week highlights how readers might spend 36 hours in a given city. The column is supposed to highlight the local particularities of each individual place; however, it often feels like the paper is highlighting ways to do the exact same things in each city. Gothenburg, Sweden: “Jazz, street murals, distinctive architecture, and world-class breweries.” Budapest: “New bars, Michelin-starred restaurants, and indie boutiques.” Bangkok: “Upstart creative spaces and obscure bars.” Aarhus, Denmark: “Excellent craft beer.” Perugia, Italy: “A host of new bars, cafes, and boutiques.” Glasgow: “Daring new buildings, bars, restaurants, and galleries.” Baltimore: “Hip cocktail bars, coffeehouses, and a quirky historic appeal.” Different places, same experience.
AirSpace culture is a massively homogenizing one, in which the McDonald’s aesthetic is updated for the Age of Instagram
We can imagine the target demographic here: a young couple, he bearded and she tattooed, jetting off from Park Slope to Perugia, where they will indulge in … the very same activities they find at home, surrounded by the very same type of people, reveling in the very same craft breweries and fusion restaurants and avant-garde galleries. Is this local distinction? Is this an economy of place? AirSpace culture is a massively homogenizing one, in which the McDonald’s aesthetic is updated for the Age of Instagram: we will offer you the same thing everywhere, so you will never feel uncomfortable.
This is how my local Lawrence bookstore is your local Ann Arbor bookstore is his local Bloomington bookstore is her local Fayetteville bookstore. AirSpace culture erases distinctions between places and ensures that the universal takes precedence over the local. A local bookstore should highlight the place that it calls home, with large sections of regional offerings and local authors. When a local bookstore or coffeeshop or art house theater becomes an extension of a national cultural aesthetic, they may flatter the sensibilities of their clientele (“People like us are everywhere!”) but they lose their individual particularity. And with every virtue-signaling children’s book about national politics that appears on the shelves, we lose something of what it means to grow up in a particular city.
This is what makes the cosmopolitan class so frustrating to localists. They claim the mantle of diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion of all viewpoints and lifestyles—and yet overwhelmingly, they live around and associate with people just like themselves. I have an acquaintance, a professor at a small college in the rural Midwest, who has spent the last decade in elite cosmopolitan enclaves: New York, the Bay Area, Cambridge, MA. She will spend this summer in Mexico City, living and working with academic colleagues from elite institutions, where they will—you guessed it—sample the craft breweries, fusion restaurants, and avant-garde galleries. Everyone I know has praised her for this, lauding her for undertaking this “adventure of new experiences!” (as one put it). And yet my only thought was: how sad. If she truly wanted an “adventure of new experiences,” she should have stayed in her rural Midwestern town, eating at the Tex-Mex joints and attending city council meetings and sitting elbow-to-elbow with hourly workers at decidedly unhip bars. That would have been a new experience. That would have been diversity and multiculturalism.
How do we preserve localism when every place is increasingly becoming just like every other place? Suburbs and shopping centers became homogenized decades ago, but for so long we could count on academics and artists to embrace the unique aspects of their cities. Now, it seems, the places and culture of those groups have at last become universalized and uniform. We are worse off for it. My bookstore should not be your bookstore; my coffeeshop should not be your coffeeshop. AirSpace has come for the college town, and it is winning. While this may please local chambers of commerce who are always in pursuit of “vibrant” cities, it should be lamented by those of us who care about the local and particular.
How about Signs of Life?
Excellent piece, Mr. Stangler!
But to your question: “How do we preserve localism when every place is increasingly becoming just like every other place?” Of course it all begins with folks like you and me truly loving our particular places for what they are, flaws and foibles included! That’s internal, a mindset.
Externally, however, I believe the answer, though simple, is admittedly complex in so many of the implications that necessarily follow from it, and which are too many and tedious to develop here. Still, here it is: Get government, from “corporate HQ” in DC, its branch offices in every state’s capital and county/town/city council, out of the business of business! No more corporate/business welfare; no more socialization of costs; no more zoning/taxation policies (that typically favour business and “progress”).
As I said, simple to answer, but not so simple in terms of where we are now. I suspect many of us localists, even if we bemoan the homogenization of place and culture, are addicted to the comfort and conveniences it provides. Furthermore, we have become habituated to the structural theft upon which so much of it depends.
This is a topic I think about a great deal, but I haven’t come up with a good answer. Contrary to a previous poster, I am quite skeptical that government has much to do with this phenomenon, or that the removal of government regulation would meaningfully reverse it. The monopolization/homogenization/exportation of culture in all its forms and the grounding of ever more human interactions in purely economic terms look to me like direct results of technological progress in a market driven economy. But if the conceit of this website is correct (as I think it is!) that a deeply human way of living necessitates grounding in a particular place, then it stands to reason that looking for a universal solution is misguided.
So here are some ideas:
1.) Learn how to grow something in your little corner of the world.
2.) Join the volunteer fire company, as I have been intending to do for most of the past decade.
3.) Discuss how nice the weather is when it’s nice, and complain about how bad it is when it’s bad, and make sure to experience both firsthand.
4.) Have a conversation.
5.) Before you do #4, go walk around for a bit and look at what’s happening in your neighborhood so you can talk about something more interesting than the last movie you watched. I guess #3 technically falls under this point, but I don’t have too many of these ideas.
6.) Go to church.
7.) Shovel a neighbor’s driveway the next time it snows.
8.) Play in a stream with your kids, and try to get as excited as they do if you can find a crayfish or salamander.
These are small things, and I’m sure they’re inadequate. Looking at the local amish communities I am constantly struck by how strong their social ties are – how the fate of the individual is tied to the fate of the whole. I think a really powerful localism needs something like that to work, but I know I’d have a hard time letting go of so much autonomy.
So another challenge to think on, one I have even fewer concrete ideas about, is the extent to which localism can adapt. The recent series about discussing Berry on twitter is a good example, but I’m thinking more of physical spaces. Other than the sort of mass horror I don’t like to dwell on I see no realistic path that will end with many peoples returning to small, agricultural communities. Are there social arrangement that can approximate more conventional ideas of agrarianism and localism – and give people the benefits of these – while still being flexible enough thrive in today’s world? It seems unlikely, but I hope there are.
I like your list! I am curious about your question “are there social arrangements that can approximate more conventional ideas of agrarianism and localism…?” I get the localism, but what do you have in mind when you refer to the “conventional ideas of agrarianism?” I assume you mean more than just local food production?
This is a thoughtful piece, but it seems to me to smoosh together a few distinct phenomena into a single complaint. Maybe those phenomena really are, on the level of theory or values, identical, but I am doubtful. Help me understand your point better.
But at this beloved bookstore, the kids’ section has become something more like a space reserved for adult virtue signaling….Why must we do this to children? Before we know it, they will be thrust into the world of adults. Can we not give them a few years of fancy and imagination?
I’ve been to The Raven, and while I’ve no doubt you know the store many, many times better than I, as a man married to the woman who runs the children’s section of Watermark Books, here in Wichita, KS, and who keeps track of much that is going on in other area independent bookstores, it strikes me as implausible that The Raven would actually get rid of various “old favorites” in the name of the latest cash-in from Chelsea Clinton. Is Feminist Baby prominently displayed? Well, sure. You know as well as I do the political perspective of a large number of the sort of young mothers living in Lawrence who might shop at The Raven; it would be an irresponsible bookstore worker that didn’t attempt to capture the eyes of those particular patrons with a snazzy display. I can’t help but suspect you’re responding to a discomforted sensibility at least as much to any actually observable change in what is sold and what isn’t at The Raven.
When a local bookstore or coffeeshop or art house theater becomes an extension of a national cultural aesthetic, they may flatter the sensibilities of their clientele (“People like us are everywhere!”) but they lose their individual particularity….This is what makes the cosmopolitan class so frustrating to localists. They claim the mantle of diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion of all viewpoints and lifestyles—and yet overwhelmingly, they live around and associate with people just like themselves.
On the one hand, actual electoral data over the past 50 years pretty clearly demonstrates that demographic sorting along ideological lines, reflecting as it does the urbanization and globalization of both financial and cultural capital, has been embraced by people all along the political spectrum. So while cosmopolitan liberals of the sort that might buy Feminist Baby might reasonably be accused of hypocrisy, they actually aren’t following any different set of socio-economic incentives, or so it seems to me, than any conservative watcher of Fox News or evangelical Protestant homeschooler who swears by Alpha Omega Publication’s nationwide Switched on Schoolhouse curriculum. On the other hand, that invites the obvious critique: we ought to change those incentives! Down with the capitalist corporations that promote and profit from selling all of us a “national cultural aesthetic”! (Amazon is the worst, and needs to go first, but many others await the pitchfork treatment afterwards.) If that’s where you’re going, believe me, I’m right behind you.
Suburbs and shopping centers became homogenized decades ago, but for so long we could count on academics and artists to embrace the unique aspects of their cities. Now, it seems, the places and culture of those groups have at last become universalized and uniform. We are worse off for it.
To the extent that your description is accurate (and there are, I think, many other and more serious instances of this besides college bookstores), I agree completely. What to do about it? Well, I suppose I’d recommend continuing to shop at The Raven and buying copies of the Little House books there (though the bookstore at the Little House of the Prairie Museum in Independence, KS, is really nice too!). I’d also recommend organize to vote out of office representatives of a political that has for the past 40 years fairly consistently mocked, underfunded, and treated as parasitic academics and artists, but that would require a different conversation.
AirSpace is a very useful term. Thankfully there are still some bookstores that have yet to be colonized by it: Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Books and Melodies in Syracuse, New York. Both are a completely beautiful mess.
As far as messy bookstores go, John King Books in Detroit has to be near the top. One of my favorite places to spend an afternoon.
Enjoyed that, thanks. Recently was out in the Rockies and on the way back to the Appalachians went by Eighth Day and Watermark in Wichita, and found Prosperos in Kansas City. That was different, probably my favorite. Liked the quotes people had written on the edges of the shelves on the bottom floor. Got coffee at Mud Pie and headed out for Left Bank in St. Louis, Parnassas in Nashville. Started at Tattered Cover, which has expanded a bit. I used to travel more back a few decades ago, and back then I had some similar experiences as you describe – the radio stations seemed to have the same dj’s, you ate at the same places out by the hotels and mall. There was always a Fridays or something. Traveling for work, seemed I was always arriving at the same place. We expend a good deal of energy making ourselves comfortable. I guess that is mostly what we work on in life, but sometimes it is a mistaken impulse.
Liked Watermark, there, Professor Fox. I thought it well curated. Things blur a little bit, but if I remember they had some very funny cards. Someone there has a sense of humor. One of the best curated shops though, is Taylor Books in Charleston WV. At least, they stock a lot of books that I find interesting.
Anyway, next time I make that journey, if I ever do, I was thinking I’d swing a little bit farther north, see what sort of places I can find through the upper mid west. I’ll put John King on the list.
Grateful to see trees again when I pulled into Wichita, by the way. Hard for me sometimes leaving the eastern woods. I have become accustomed to them.
One of things I picked up was Egan’s The Worst Hard Time since I was out near the high plains, and seeing how I was in book stores. Have to walk out with something. The landscape is scarred like it is in the Appalachians, and then it’s nothing like it. Similar only in the hand that made it that way. Miss that in the AirSpaces.
Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I really enjoyed reading them. I will echo the sentiment that Eighth Day Books is one of this country’s great institutions — not just bookstores, but institutions. What troubles me about what’s happening at The Raven is that we are, increasingly, molding children into active members of an activist culture (of all stripes) that is increasingly national/uniform/homogeneous in its thinking and composition. This is, I think, partially the result of the nationalization of politics, partly the result of the homogenizing forces of capital, partly the result of making politics eschatological in a secular culture, and partly the result of a collective over-parenting that diminishes the capacity for wonder and forces kids to grow up too soon. And you’re left with a kids’ section ruled not by dragons and pirates and magic wardrobe-portals, but rather by a stern adult message that these kids should be Woke and active and wearing anti-Trump shirts to their daycares. I find this stance, which seems to be the ruling attitude here in Lawrence, to be extremely depressing — not because I support Trump (I very vocally do not) but because I want to preserve the sense of innocence and wonder for as long as possible. And what we’re left with, here in Lawrence at least, is a laughably conformist culture enacted daily by parents who parrot the same lines from Vox at the AirSpace-ed coffee shop, buy their kids “A is for Activist” and marvel proudly when the child denounces a kleptocrat, and have exactly the same opinions as the college-town-cognoscenti in Austin, Portland, et al. What’s lost is local distinction, the idea of a bookstore as a marketplace of ideas, and the cultural status of academics and artists as people willing to challenge culture. There’s a great line from Mark Twain about immediately reconsidering your position if you find you’re in agreement with the majority. Artists and academics used to play that role. In Lawrence, at least, they are now the conformers-in-chief. And that strikes me as very sad.
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