Friday, February 8, 2013

Remembrance of Things Soon to be Past... Maybe

Will this go the way of the phone booth? 

Though I hadn't planned to write about the phenomenon of disappearing bookstores, a cluster of articles-- well three, this article, this one , and this one, (is that a cluster?)-- came across my desk today.  That got me thinking about the demise of bookstores.  Like many other former booksellers, I know that the elegy for the bookstore is being written slowly and has already gone through many movements.  The bookstore is dead.  Long live bookstores!  My memories of the stores I've worked in trace some of the changes up to now. 

While I was in high school, more than twenty years before the end of the last century, I got my first job in a tiny bookstore.  When I say tiny, you need to picture a space no larger than most living rooms.  Such stores weren't yet called "independent" stores because the rise of the chains was still to come.  The store was a vanity project though, owned by a woman whose wish to be a small busines owner was financed by her husband's land development money.  She was something of a flibberty-gibbet, descending every few weeks or so to sign checks and pick up some books to read.  The store was run for her by a tall, thin woman named Penelope, who was decent enough to hire a teen-aged booklover, and cranky enough to make me work alone there on Sundays.  (We were only open noon to five.)  Penny had been a librarian, and she kept the tiny store in apple pie order, even though true crime and any overstock had to be stacked under the front desk, as there was no back room.  I wish I could say the store had flourished, but it closed before I went to college.  By then, there was talk of "the chains" and how they were ruining the book business, and how the mall was no place for a real bookstore. 

My next bookstore job was a few years later.  By then it was called an "independent bookstore" to distinguish it from the chains.  We also sold classical music, as the store was owned by a woman who loved books, and financed by her husband, who had been an opera singer.  (Maybe the problem isn't really e-books, but actually the lack of rich husbands with wives who want bookstores.)  When I started there, we were still selling vinyl records and hardcover books at full retail.  When I left, we were packing remaining inventory into boxes to return for publishers' credit and decamping without notifying the landlord. 

From there I went to work at a superstore, the now defunct Bookstar, which held what seemed to be miles of books, though they were set up in a cavernous stores which boasted all the charm of a badly-lit supermarket.  It was the last time I was hired for a retail job because I knew something about books. 

Bookstar seemed to have taken a page from Crown Books, brainchild of Robert Haft,  an early discount bookseller who boldly stated "Books cost too much!" in commercials, as he offered new books at used book prices.  When Bookstar was swallowed whole by Barnes & Noble, I was still on board, and got swallowed up as well, like Jonah, trapped inside a whale, swallowed by a sea monster.  B&N did away with the used car salesmanship and gussied up the superstores with comfy seating, good lighting, and fresh cappucinos.  And they saw that it was good, and opened stores faster than rabbits make baby bunnies.  And then there was Amazon and e-readers... and you know the rest.

I still love bookstores.  Big ones, small ones, the ones tucked into the corner of libraries selling books for a quarter a piece.  I met my husband while we working in a bookstore, and so did my best friend.  Our husbands still sell books.  My kids love bookstores-- my oldest son has worked in a bookstore since he got his first job over a decade ago.  If we're lucky, my youngest child will have the same option.  I try to remember that everything seems to cycle back into fashion.  I saw a record store, with real vinyl records, opening the other day.  I think paper books will always be with us, but they may eventually take on the cachet of vinyl records.  Maybe that won't be terrible, because maybe then they will seem valuable again, in a way they don't now. 

It seems hard to believe that something like a bookstore will disappear completely, but there used to be pay phones in every strip mall too.   I haven't seen those come back yet, but you never know.

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