Dan’s recent post on this country’s best independent bookstores inspired quite a few readers to chime in with their suggestions, most of which Dan added to the original list. Last year I shared two obituary notices for George Whitman (1913-2011), the eccentric proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. Whitman was an eccentric in the best and endearing sense, that is, he was a “most unphony person” in the words of his daughter Sylvia. I’ve yet to visit Shakespeare and Company, but in my mind’s eye (and with the aid of a few photographs of the interior and exterior of the shop) it is the consummate bookstore.
One of the suggestions from my hometown was Chaucer’s Bookstore, which is the subject of a piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times by Pico Iyer, a dear friend (his mother, Nandini, a former teacher of mine, happens to be my best friend) who recently penned a wonderful book about Graham Greene…and his late father, Raghavan Iyer: The Man Within My Head (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). Pico reminds us why we remain profoundly loyal to and quite fond of the independent bookstore:
“There was once a little bookstore, tucked into an unglamorous mall on the wrong side of town, where few visitors were likely to stumble upon it. Its owner had opened a small shop in 1974 with a modest bequest from her mother, and she and her husband had had to dip into their life insurance funds to keep it going. People from across the county drove for miles to buy books there — and to see friends, to pick up free copies of the New York Times Book Review, to special-order out-of-print works no one else could be bothered to find. But these days, so it was said, it was easier, cheaper — more fun — to shop online. A computer could read your taste better than you could. One click could bring you the whole world, radically discounted.
Just as Amazon.com was getting going, a large store called Borders came into the small town and set up a three-story emporium at its central intersection. This bright new palace sold CDs and boasted aisles full of magazines and cookies and coffee; musicians struck up concerts outside its entrance; thousands of books were sold at vastly marked-down prices; and it used the cozy chairs and community air of a neighborhood store to crafty corporate advantage.
But a few years later, to everyone’s surprise, the huge citadel of books, next to a free, multistory parking lot and a five-screen cinema in downtown Santa Barbara, closed. Just one week before, on the last day of 2010, the sprawling Barnes & Noble bookstore across the street from it, in the chicest mall downtown, had also shut its doors. Then the Borders near the town's large public university closed.
Online retailers and e-readers had become ubiquitous. But the little bookstore called Chaucer’s just kept growing and growing, housing more books — 150,000 and counting — in its happily overcrowded aisles than the central megastore had carried in a space six times as big.
How could this happen? Well, 24 of Chaucer's 26 employees work there full-time, many of them for more than 10 years. They have an investment in the concern that the part-time workers in big-box bookstores usually do not.
People come there just to browse through a carnival-like children’s room of books and toys and games. They come there to meet dates, to receive personal commendations, often to buy nothing at all. They come there as to a community center, a sanctuary or a trusted friend’s living room (albeit a living room where Salman Rushdie is reading from his latest, and sometime-local Sue Grafton is sitting around for four hours to chat with her many fans). Chaucer’s sells no coffee or remainders, but it offers teachers 20% discounts and holds two book fairs a year to raise money for local schools.
So perhaps the story of the bookstore stands for something larger than mere books. Most of us can get anything we want online these days — except for the tactile reassurance of human contact, the chance to do nothing at all and a sense of connection that persists even after the electricity has gone off and the batteries run out. Convenience is not always an ideal substitute for companionship, and speed isn’t infallibly the fastest way to well-being. Even the $2 — or $10 — discounts that corporations can offer may exact a cost at some deeper level that sometimes we find ourselves paying and paying.” [….]
Pico’s essay is adapted from a forthcoming volume of writers “celebra[ting] their favorite places to browse, read, and shop,” My Bookstore, edited by Ronald Rice (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2012)
Addendum: In a popular online forum for local news and other regional stuff, several readers have taken offence at Pico’s reference to the “wrong side of town” in the opening sentence, a touchy subject in a city populated with not a few folks possessed of an overweening economic self-interest in real estate valuations and chock-full of citizens sensitive to crime statistics generally and the effects of a considerable amount of geographically-based (e.g., ‘Westside,’ 'Eastside’) gang banging (in the sense of participation in gang-related activities from graffiti vandalism to violence of one kind or another) in particular; or in a city economically dependent on tourism or with demeaning and condescending class- and race-based sentiments regularly emanating from the literal and figurative heights of the socio-economically and politically advantaged (as well as from those who daily dream of joining their ranks). But I’m confident that Pico was not referring to the “wrong side of town” in that sense, but rather in the manner befitting one considering the ideal location for a bookstore of this sort, the most successful of which have been located historically in the downtown area (hence the last clause of the sentence in question: ‘where few visitors were likely to stumble upon it’). Indeed, across the street from the city library in the heart of downtown sits California’s oldest used bookstore, The Book Den.