Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Independent Bookstores: Necessity or Anachronism?

My fellow Philadelphia-area writer, Michelle Wittle, had an interesting post on the Philadelphia Stories Blog regarding independent bookstores. The now oldest independent bookstore in Philadelphia, Robin's, at 13th and Broad, will be closing its doors. I say, "now oldest," because Leary's, when it went on the auction block in 1969, was the oldest at the time––though that may have been oldest "used" bookstore. I still remember Leary's with its walls of books and musty smell. It was kind of like "Amazon with walls." Tell someone you were having difficulty locating a certain book and you'd receive the invariable response, "Did you try Leary's?"

Many feel a certain nostalgia for the independent bookstore and rail against chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders or the original online seller, Amazon.com, for putting them out of business. Yet, to me, independent bookstores are a lot like typewriters. Many writers, even those (or maybe especially those) who never actually attempted to pound out a story on one , still associate the clack of the keys and the scent of an inked ribbon, with the process of writing. While I can appreciate the mythological image of a Hemingway pecking away on his Smith-Corona or whatever he used, the fact is typewriters were inefficient time-wasters compared to the Word Processor. To me you might as well pine for a quill.

In truth I loose no love over the big brick and mortar chains featuring faux-Bohemian coffee shops while worshipping at the altar of commercialism, however, Amazon.com changed the world of bookselling. Before it became an online department store, Amazon sold just books. It invented the "Everyman" review we now take for granted, but more important, it made just about every book in print––and many that have gone out of print––available to everyone.

Do you remember the book-buying world before Amazon? I do. Every so often I'd take an interest in a certain writer or group of writers. For a while it was the Russians. At another point it was South American writers. I'm also a history buff and would go through a period of reading about a certain era or historical figure. Only my reading took me only as far as the books available in my local libraries or bookstores. That wasn't a problem with the Russians, and in high school and college I read everything Hemingway wrote except for the books not yet published posthumously, but my interest in Alexander the Great didn't go much farther than the Mary Renault, Alexander Trilogy. Not that there weren't reams of work written about Alexander. I simply didn't have access to them or, not living in the city where I could easily visit a large library, any way of finding that they even existed.

A little over a decade later, Mari Sandoz's Crazy Horse, Strange Man of the Oglalas piqued my interest in Native American history. I found two other books on the subject at my local bookstore, surrounded by books on Indian Arts & Crafts and some coffee table books of Curtis photographs. My husband suggested I try that new online bookseller Amazon.com, which I did, with much trepidation. (CH was also the first book I reviewed.) Fast forward ten years, and I am sitting in my office surrounded by a few hundred books, not just about NA history, but current issues, and several books of Native American literarture my limited resources would never have made available to me. Many of the nonfiction books cover very obscure topics, like one Supreme Court Case. One is a textbook on Indian Law. Okay, that might not have your heart thumping as it did mine, but I bet, if you think about it, you can name several books you'd never have found if it weren't for Amazon, like the one by that guy you heard interviewed on NPR or Bill Moyers.

In the best of all worlds, we'd have independent bookstores and Amazon too. (Notice I didn't mention B & N or Borders.) Sometimes I miss the real browsing as opposed to the virtual kind, where I can open the book and run my hand over the pages. I'd like a real person to peek over my shoulder and suggest a similar book I might enjoy, rather than have it generated by computer software, but if the two really can't exist simultaneously, I gotta admit, like the Word Processor, Amazon rocked my world.

1 comment:

Angie Ledbetter said...

I'm a pig; I want the online stores, the big daddy chains AND the comfort of the little mom and pop independent. There are only two left here, sadly, of the indy kind. One of those fine places will order (and receive PDQ) any book on the planet they don't stock. *sigh*


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