In this age of online retailing, writers pay tribute to their favourite bookstore.
“For starters, there’s Tiny. It might seem odd to pay tribute to a bookstore by way of its formidable resident cat, but Tiny is no ordinary cat. He takes the notion of a charming curmudgeon to unprecedented levels, inspiring fear, awe and affection in customers and employees alike. To disturb him for any reason is to do so at your own peril. Usually I stand at a respectful distance, resisting the impulse to address him as ‘Sir’. Yet I can’t imagine my favourite local bookshop without his inimitable presence.”
This is writer Carmela Ciuraru on her favourite bookshop, The Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. I have met Tiny and can vouch for what Ciuraru says; I can also vouch that her essay perfectly and charmingly captures the experience of being at this little bookshop.
It’s surprising no one thought of a book like this sooner; writers paying tribute to their favourite bookshops. (There are far too many books, anyway, on writers on their favourite books). My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favourite Places to Browse, Read and Shop (Blackdog & Leventhal, 2013) invites authors to talk about independent bookstores that they have a deep relationship with. This is a beautiful deckle edge edition with each essay illustrated by Leif Parsons, offering little sketches of various bookshop storefronts. The 84 pieces range from accounts of iconic destination bookstores to obscure out-of-the-way places to (almost) best-kept secrets.
For Pico Iyer, Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara “has been my sanctuary, my talisman, my spiritual and social and literary home and inspiration for 37 years now…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.” Pico talks of this one time when a new bookstore specialising in travel asked him to read and sign from his new book. On the day of the book event, Pico discovers the new bookstore had not made any effort to get copies of his books. He called his ‘inner 911’ — Chaucer’s — and explained the situation. One of his friends working at the bookshop quickly rounded up all the books he could lay his hands on, drove 20 miles to bring them over to the other bookshop to, “in effect, help a new rival sell the books it had been too lazy even to stock.
There are, as if to account for its size and volume, two pieces on the Strand in New York. Peter Hamill writes of it from the old days when it was part of Book Row, and Francine Prose on how it feels to be shopping there now. Prose notes that as long as she can remember the Strand slogan was “18 Miles of Books” but for the longest time it was actually ‘8 miles of books’ (I have the bookshop t-shirt from then that says it). She’s accurate in describing Strand as a place “different from bookstores that somehow manage to make me feel that I’ve overstayed, or that the time I have spent there has been wasted.” And she is so very right when she notes, “The Strand rare book room is astonishing: a wonder of the world.”
Several writers testify to the support they have received from independent bookshops; how essential independent booksellers have been to the success of their books, hand selling a book, making sure customers knew how good it was. Abraham Verghese felt awed when it was his turn at Prairie Lights bookshop to be the author reading that evening from My Own Country. He had been coming here for years, listening to other authors, and felt immensely privileged to have his own book event here. Also in the book: Dave Eggers on Green Apple Books, Henry Louis Gates Jr on Harvard Bookstore, Chuck Palahnuik on Powell’s City of Books, Laurie R. King on Bookshop Santa Cruz, Simon Winchester on The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Brian Selznick on Warwicks in La Jolla, and Ron Rash on City Lights – to highlight just a few.
A thoughtful, provocative afterword by Emily St. John Mandel challenges us to examine our — the reader’s — role in sustaining a culture of independent bookselling, and not submissively surrendering to the reality of online bookselling and ebooks. She’s fed up of hearing how bookstores are dead and ebooks are the way of the future, but “why would we passively accept the idea of a less varied and more monocultural literary landscape?” She imagines that it should be possible for Amazon (I suppose Flikpart here) and independent bookstores/printed books and ebooks to exist side by side. “I wholeheartedly reject the notion that a bookselling monopoly can be good for readers. A healthy and vibrant culture, literary or otherwise, depends on diversity. I don’t think it is in anyone’s best interest for writers or books to come to our attention from only one source.”
I had to wonder about our bookshop reality here, as chain stores like Landmark and Crossword downsize and shrink, will more independent bookshops spring up or will everything be left up to online book shopping and the convenience and range it offers? When did, she asks, convenience become the most important thing? And makes a crucial observation as she closes: how being a consumerist comes “with its own intimations of responsibility…which is that we get to change the world we live in by means of where we spend our money…if it happens that you’re someone who enjoys having a bookstore in your town, I would argue that it’s never been more important.”