This year I made two resolutions:
- I would no longer accept “free” books from publishers.
- I would buy books only at bricks-and-mortar stores.
Guess which one I’ve kept? The first. I’m gobsmacked as to how anyone can keep the second.
It’s hip, it’s chic, and, according to all book publications, it’s revolutionary to shop at bricks-and-mortar stores. Support local businesses! Support writers! Where’s my Che Guevara beret? Do they even give their employees health insurance? Well, you can shop for books in London. There are good bookstores in London. It can be done in Portland. It can be done in Nashville. But in the Midwest it’s a challenge. It comes down to: what on earth do they have that I want to buy?
The bookstores here are in a decline. The indies are often owned by rich hobbyists–tax write-offs, I suppose. The Bookworm in Omaha used to be a pretty good store, located in a rather pretty strip mall, with trees growing along the side of the parking lot. The store’s displays were clever: Dan Brown’s Inferno surrounded by Dante’s Inferno (and the rest of The Divine Comedy). An attractive shelf of the small-press Pharos Editions’ reissues of American classics like Brian Kittredge’s Still Life with Insects. A display of copies of Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, a novel about Louise Brooks, next to a flapper dress.
It moved. Why? According to hearsay, the landlord of the old building didn’t keep up the maintenance. The store at the new mall is ugly. And what happened to the new fiction and new nonfiction sections? A few new hardbacks are mixed in with the paperbacks, but the new titles are missing. And they have lost their oomph: no more displays or small press books. I thought of buying last year’s biography of Charlotte Bronte , but you know what? I have already read biographies of the Brontes.
And then there are the chain stores. I would say, thank God we have chains, but I am doomed to live in a region with moribund chains. It’s like going to the Scotch tape store in the dying mall on Saturday Night Live. When I wanted to buy Doris Lessing’s last novel, Alfred and Emily, Barnes and Noble had never heard of it and I went to Borders. When I wanted to buy John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun, B&N had never heard of it and I had to go to Borders. When I looked for the new translation of Pushkin before Christmas, they didn’t have it, and I didn’t ask.
To be fair, I doubt the local Barnes and Noble has an individual buyer or any control over which books are shipped there. I heard, or read, they are given maps of what to display where. I am doomed to live in a region where it is assumed the readers read junk. Perhaps they do, judging from the Little Free Libraries. But, alas, we need good books, too. And what IS the point of NOT carrying the latest books? It’s Barnes and Noble!
Oh, dear, I miss Borders, but we need our Barnes and Noble. Desperately.
HERE ARE FOUR LITERARY LINKS”
1. The writer Emma Tennant died on January 21 at age 79. (I wrote about her novel Confessions of a Sugar Mummy here.) She was the author of comic fiction, women’s fiction, surreal fantasy and science fiction (The Crack, Wild Nights), autobiography, and sequels to Austen, Hardy, Stevenson, and others. I very much enjoyed The Crack and Wild Nights. Here is a link to the obituary at the New York Times .
2. At the blog Leaves and Pages, I read about a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim I have never heard of, Introduction to Sally:
Oh joy! Oh bliss! What a sweet romp of a thing. I loved it. What happens when an unbelievably beautiful girl is born into a modestly situated, working class, strictly God-fearing family, unable to fathom how best to protect their jewel of a child from the increasingly lecherous gaze of every man who sees her? By marrying her off, of course, to the first man who offers for her, thereby shifting the responsibility to other shoulders. Beauty as burden is the theme of this little novel, with a dash of reluctant Eliza Doolittle-ism thrown in.
3. At the Guardian Lorraine Berry writes about “Bibliomania: the strange history of compulsive book buying.” Here’s an excerpt:
When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books. Soon enough, with the ubiquity of credit card touts on campus, I could buy both books and meals. I justified my increasing debt as necessary for my education, and joked with friends that while others spent their money on cars and expensive clothes, anything of value that I owned was on my bookcases.
4. And at Tor, Steven Brust writes, “Five Roger Zelazny Books that Changed My Life by Being Awesome.”
You always get asked, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” And, of course, there’s no answer, or a thousand answers that are all equally valid. But I usually say, “In high school, when I read Zelazny’s Lord of Light.”
You see, until then, I had never known you could do that. I never knew you could make someone feel all those different things at the same time, with all of that intensity, just by how you used 26 characters and a few punctuation marks. What was it? Well, everything: Sam and Yama were the most compelling characters I’d come across; it was the first time I’d ever stopped reading to just admire a sentence; it gave me the feeling (which proved correct) that there were layers I wouldn’t get without a few rereadings; and, above all, it was when I became of what could be done with voice—how much could be done with just the way the author addressed the reader. I remember putting that book down and thinking, “If I could make someone feel like this, how cool would that be?” Then I started reading it again. And then I went and grabbed everything else of his I could find.
The loss of good bookshops does make it much harder for us. I’m fortunate to live close enough to London to have access to places like Foyles, and also have a pretty good local branch of Waterstones (they do vary – the one in Leicester where my offspring live, a much bigger place, is actually disappointing by comparison). But I miss Borders – there was a branch in Charing Cross Road and it had wonderful, eclectic stock. I have bought quite a lot from real bookshops recently, so I am doing my bit….
You’re lucky to have two thriving chains as well as indies! I do love those London bookstores. Borders was very good for about 20 years and then… It’s so nice you can also find such great stuff at charity shops.
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Sooooo lucky here in southern NH to have a thriving indie bookstore with three branches! I’d invite you for a visit but I suppose it’s a bit far to come from the Midwest.
Yes, you are very lucky! I did like the small bookstore in Northfield, but that’s kind of far away too.
Great post! Sorry to hear about your lack of great bookstores in the Midwest. I recently moved to Portland, which I was mislead to believe was filled with great bookstores. Powell’s is just really big! It’s not the same as a lack of decent selection, but I think it lacks charm. I come from Los Angeles, where we have tons of amazing independent bookstores that I adore, so I’ve seen my retail spending plummet here in the PNW. That, and I don’t want to go out in the rain! Either way, it hasn’t made a difference, because I was stockpiled with an enormous TBR pile of books, many of which I acquired directly from small presses at various book fairs. I’m a sucker for small presses. Portland does have some amazing indy presses, my long time, way before I moved here, favorite is Tin House. Sorry for the ramble, cheers!