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Wednesday, 30 November 2016 16:34

Local bookstores should be celebrated, supported

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In My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Inc., 2012, 378 pages, $23.95), 84 writers tout their favorite bookshops. The stores beloved by these writers range from Manhattan’s enormous Strand Book Store to our own City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, reviewed here by novelist and poet Ron Rash.

My Bookstore celebrates local bookstores and their impact on the surrounding communities. Writers like Francine Prose, Jill McCorkle, Isabel Allende, Tom Robbins, and Wendell Berry sing the praises of the bookshops they love and treasure. In nearly every case, these authors explain that their favorite bookshop is more than just a building where they buy books. No, for most of them bookshops like Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books or Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, are  gathering places, in some cases a club or a second home where readers and writers meet their friends, where books and writers alive and dead are discussed and celebrated, where knowledgeable owners and employees guide their customers to the right books. 

An example of this passion for brick and mortar bookselling can be found in Pico Iyer’s laudatory tribute to Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara, California, in which he writes “It is my de facto office, my classroom, my place of worship, my site for dates, and (not unrelatedly) my ideal location for getting lost.” 

With its introduction by Richard Russo and illustrations of each shop by artist Leif Parsons, My Bookstore offers a vivid reminder of the importance of our local bookstores.

And ‘tis the season to remember those shops.

A great number of independent bookstores have closed their doors over the last 40 years. They fell victim first to the big chain bookstores — Walden’s, Books-A-Million, Borders, Barnes and Noble — and then to online companies, particularly, of course, Amazon, which devoured not only many of the remaining independents, but took an enormous bite out of the chains as well. 

Technology has also hurt the book trade. For many people, reading an electronic book on Kindle costs less money and saves time. You punch a few buttons, and the book pops up on a device you can carry in your purse or pocket. If you want the real book, you order it online and two days later that book is in your hands.

Like nearly all readers, I enjoy the convenience of online book services. When I can’t find a particular book and the shop owner offers to order it for me, I inevitably decline because I can order it more quickly from my home. 

And yet, if you and I fail to support our local bookshops — and our local businesses in general — we are not only hurting them, but also harming ourselves in the long run. 

Let me explain.

When shopping online for books, we are usually after a specific book. Few of us browse, and as a result, few of us stumble across those delightful surprises we find when we visit a library or bookshop. We stroll through the aisles of the shop, spot a remaindered history of the Ancient Egyptians, hold it in our hands, look at the hundreds of pictures and sidebars, remember our nephew’s interest in mummies and pharaohs, and purchase his Christmas present. We walk past the fiction shelves, spot Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, and recall that two years earlier we had read a complimentary review of her novel, but then neglected to follow up by reading it. When it comes to buying books for our grandchildren, we are clueless and so ask the manager what she might recommend. We bring our laptops to the shop’s café, order a coffee, and spend the next three hours happily pecking away at the keyboard, getting out of our chair every once in a while to graze the shelves, here and there pulling out a book.

If bookstores die — and readers are the only people who can keep them alive — then a piece of our community dies as well.

With apologies to those bookshops not mentioned in this paragraph, consider the treasures we still posses. In Sylva, City Lights Bookstore; in Highlands, Shakespeare & Co; in Waynesville, Blue Ridge Books and the Wall Street Book Exchange; in Asheville, Malaprops, the Captain’s Bookshelf, the Battery Park Bookstore, Downtown Book and News, and even Barnes and Noble: each store is different, but they share one thing in common. 

They have survived.

To ensure that survival, our local booksellers need patrons. This Christmas, I encourage readers to shop locally as much as possible, not just in our bookshops but in all of our other stores as well. These excursions may cost us a bit more money, but keep in mind that the money we are spending stays in our community. And compared to online bargain hunting, shopping locally may cost us some extra time and trouble, but we will find ourselves meeting new people and experiencing adventures that definitely won’t happen when we order from Amazon. 

One hint: To help those of you who are unfamiliar with the reading tastes of your family or friends, keep in mind that readers love bookshop gift certificates. These allow them to ramble through the shop and make their own selection. I intend to give my grandchildren gift certificates to their local bookshops. That way, they can pick their own books as well as acquire the habit of visiting bookshops. (If my own children are reading this column, this is your hint for a holiday gift). 

Good hunting!

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2012. 378 pages.

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