We all know the story: the traditional bookstore is dying, stabbed in the heart by the monotonous, corporation-driven big-box bookstore, run over by that sinister innovation, electronic bookselling, then garroted by the obstreperous new eBook. Even the Amazon Kindle bestseller list concurs, with a $2.99 eNovel titled The Last Bookstore in America. We daily mourn the traditional bookstore and suffer anxiety about what its loss will mean to the texture of intellectual and community life.
This isn’t the first time the printed book, its production and distribution, has engendered anxiety in our country. Beginning with the arrival in 1638 of the first printing press in Massachusetts Bay Colony and the publishing of the first book, the Bay Psalm Book, in 1640, the religious men who ruled the colony fretted that the printing press would allow the power of the printed word to fall into the wrong (i.e. secular) hands, encouraging the rise of dissent. An early governor of Virginia even thanked God for the absence of a printing press in his colony.
Each new technological advance in book printing has engendered anxiety of one kind or another in the hearts of the staid and the powerful. With the rise of the mechanical (as opposed to the hand-set) press and the resulting proliferation of books and reading, men fumed that women’s chastity would be polluted by the steady stream of early 19th-century romance novels, and, in the late-19th century, the wealthy bemoaned the corruption of working class morals by the omnipresent dime novel.
But, since the early and mid-19th century the bookstore has remained a temple of the physical book on the physical shelf, the gathering place of book lovers, a source of recommended reading, an oasis of literate conversation and community. Even a place to get a cup of coffee. This is all real-time life; none of can be replicated electronically. Although I know electronic publishing can be a boon to writers and readers, I also admit to great personal anxiety about the traditional bookstore’s possible 21st-century demise,
Last week I took my nine-year-old grandaughter to a main-street bookstore in a pricey little Connecticut town. She was shy. No bookseller had ever before asked her what kind of book she liked best to read. No bookseller had ever lead her directly to a section, even a shelf!, where she could find the books she liked. No bookseller had ever put a book directly in her hand. My granddaughter looked at me with something akin to panic: what was she supposed to do? “This,” I told her, “is the way bookstores used to be.”
Then I read about the novelist Ann Patchett and her bold establishment of Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore, in Nashville. “This,” she said, “is the way bookstores used to be.” And, given the recent demise of one of our gargantuan national bookselling factories, I began to hope that perhaps they will once again be this way.
The way bookstores used to be: something more than a mere text-delivery system. Something more than a big-box mega-profits mill. Something both tangible and intangible, made up of beautiful, well-made books on their shelves, of passoniate customers and passionate booksellers, of individuals and of community, of conversation, of sharing, of pleasure, of a good cup of coffee and a book you can hold in your hand.