I find myself surprised to be writing this. Let it be said at the outset I am a libertarian/laissez faire/free market voluptuary. You remember Barry Goldwater? Well, I’m just a little bit to the right of him.
It may be cabin fever – here in Atlanta, we’ve been snowed in for the last several days – or the effect of early senility seeping in around the edges, but lately I’ve been wondering if we really can trust the invisible hand of the market to have all the answers, especially when I read an alarming statistic such as the following: independent bookstores are going out of business at the rate of three a day. I read this in a book called Guerilla Marketing for Authors, and while it may be an exaggeration, personal anecdotal evidence goes a long way to support it.
When I was a small child, my favorite place to visit was a toy store. When I was a somewhat larger child, my favorite place was bookstores. Atlanta used to have a fabulous independent store, maybe even legendary, Oxford Books at Peachtree Battle. Many is the happy hour Nancy and I would spend browsing its shelves, and then going upstairs for a bagel and coffee at the Cup and Chaucer Coffee Shop above the mezzanine. Barnes and Noble and Borders squeezed it out, and now, while there is still an Oxford Books on Piedmont, it is a shadow of its former self. Now Barnes and Noble and Borders themselves are in trouble, and the Borders down the street from us has sold off its inventory and gone the way of Blockbusters. This is not to say people have stopped buying books – of course they still buy books – but now they often go straight to Amazon where they can not only get books, CDs, and DVDs, but barbecue grills and motor oil.
Here is where my critique of the free market comes in.
There’s nothing wrong with buying stuff from the internet; it’s convenient, inexpensive, and you don’t have to leave home. But something is subtracted from the community when a bookstore disappears. I feel the loss more keenly when the roads are icy, snow hangs on the oak boughs, and I can’t leave home myself, but there’s no substitute for the warmth of a neighborhood bookstore, with its cheery abundance of things to look at and read, and not just cyber-versions, but real live books with pages to turn and pictures to look at, the enthusiastically bookish clerk behind the counter, and the dog or cat – many small bookstores have a mascot of this sort – strolling the aisles of Thackeray and Dickens to be petted. The bell rings on the door when you enter, maybe, and when you leave, what’s more wonderful than going to your car with a heavy sack of books, treasures to open up and relish when you get home?
Bookstores add substantially to community life, just as the local barbershop, house of worship, and corner grocery do. Life without a local bookstore is inconceivable.
Maybe if we want our communities to be livable and reflect our values, we have to make a concerted effort to patronize local stores and not just click the mouse every time we hear about something new to read, even though going to the shop is a little more trouble, and maybe they won’t always have exactly what we want, and they’ll have to order it and we’ll have to go back a second time. More trouble, perhaps, but it might be worth it for the sake of petting the bookstore cat.
The strange thing is, some brick-and-mortar businesses seem to have no trouble thriving in the world of e-commerce. For example, as bookstores have declined, I seem to have noticed an up tick in the number of stores selling porn and sex toys. Maybe this is only my imagination, but I wouldn’t like my complacent trust in the free market to result in my living in a city with no bookstores but plenty of sex shops. (Do sex shops maintain a resident cat or dog as some bookstores do? If they did, would you want to pet it?) Perhaps if we bought our porn on the internet and our books from actual stores, the world would be a better place, but maybe that’s crazy talk.
In the meantime, as soon as the thaw comes, I’m going to hie me down to Eagle Eye or A Capella Books.
It’s a cold world out there.
(Speaking of bookstores, this June look for my 2nd novel, Paradise Dogs, in a bookstore near you.)