One of my fondest college memories is wandering about the city to linger in small, quirky bookstores. The now defunct Brentano’s, Gotham Book Mart, Eeyore’s and Hotaling’s, which was not a bookstore but a newsstand with publications from all over the world. The still surviving Rizzoli’s, Shakespeare & Company, Books of Wonder, and the Mysterious Bookshop. And of course, the Strand, the used bookstore you could rummage in for hours. When my friend and fellow writer and blogger Michele Hollow’s father died, she quipped that he would have loved to have his ashes scattered in a bookstore, but she worried about a) the legality of such a thing and b) whether his remains would end up in a vacuum cleaner. “Scatter him in the Strand,” her husband advised. “I don’t think they ever vacuum, and no one will notice because he’ll just mix in with the rest of the dust!”
The dust, musty smell, and, most of all, offbeat employees were part of the charm. You could find kindred spirits (as Anne of Green Gables would say) in these stores. Case in point: I once got into a discussion with the proprietors of a children’s bookstore in the West Village, one of whom told me his favorite children’s book was The Wind in the Willows. When I mentioned how beautiful I found the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” he agreed that while most readers feel the same way, his favorite was “Wayfarers All” and how it captures being torn between the comforts of home and the love of friends and family vs. the longing for travel and adventure, and the regrets at choosing one over the other. After going home and rereading it, I had to agree.
Those literary footloose and fancy free days ended with motherhood, and Borders became a fixture in our lives. What it lacked in the quirk factor it made up for in convenience and comfort; it was a place where the kids could read, get something to eat, attend an event, run up and down the stairs, hurl themselves off the mini bleachers in the children’s section, and—very important—get to a bathroom quickly. And you never even had to buy anything. Fancy that!
I’ve always been a loyal patron of the library as well. After all, you are under no pressure to purchase, and they stock books based on quality, not sales potential. This came at the cost of cranky librarians shushing the kids, even in the children’s section, while allowing teenagers to gab or reprimanding you for not returning a book, which you insist you did and prove it by finding it on the shelf. (Our library system seems to have experienced a change of heart, with more children’s fare and lenient lending policies and even little cafes.)
Like the rest of the book industry, I have mixed feelings about the demise of Borders. I don’t feel we’ve lost something as precious as the small bookstores, but the loss of any temple to reading and the printed word is a shame.
What will rise from Borders’ ashes? Some say the small independent will find a niche in the hearts of readers. I don’t agree. With Amazon, bn.com, and the exploding popularity of e-books, the digitalization of books marches on, as well as that of our minds. Yes, reading is not the solitary activity it’s chalked up to be, and we want to connect with readers with similar interests with whom we can discuss books and share new titles. But I think Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and online communities like Goodreads and Shelfari are filling this role.
I hope I’m wrong on this one. Maybe there’s a place for a bookstore with a physical and digital footprint. Picture high shelves stacked with books and a library ladder to reach them, a spiral staircase, literary-minded and friendly employees and clientele (preferably resembling Fred and Audrey), coffee brewing, tea—and I mean loose tea made in a proper teapot—baked goods and a little, shabby but clean bathroom in the back. A reliable Wifi connection, informative website and blog, Twitter, Facebook fan page, Google+…have I left anyone out? Okay, it can even let people become mayors on Foursquare (sorry, I just don’t get the point of Foursquare). I’ll call it Phoenix Books (can’t resist; I’m on a roll here with the ashes schtick). Heck, maybe it can offer ash-scattering services to supplement its income, or sell online ads and license its name on merchandise. Anything to counter the fact that as long as Amazon is around, plenty of people will use bookstores like this to check out books that they can then buy for less online, download as an e-book, or borrow from the library.