Bookstores: A Magical Realm

Oddly enough, for someone who has always been an avid reader, when I was a kid, bookstores actually didn’t play a very big role in my life.  The library was far more important, and not just because I was perpetually short on pocket money.  There just didn’t seem to be bookstores around.

Signing at Page One

I occasionally bought books from the wire racks in the drug store or Sears.  However, my memory doesn’t include bookstores in the neighborhood where I lived in D.C., and certainly not in the part of rural Maryland that was so essential to my summers.  I think I bought the most books at yard sales, church bazaars, and at small “antique” stores that carried a wide variety of second-hand stuff.

It wasn’t until I went away to college at Fordham in New York that I encountered the really big bookstores.  The original Barnes and Noble awed me.  It  became a destination point when my friends and I made field trips from our campus in the Bronx into Manhattan.   Later, as my mobility grew, I found mall bookstores.  I also discovered second hand bookstores.  These reminded me of the “antique” stores of my childhood, only these were devoted entirely to books and book-related items.  Eventually, the big box bookstores started appearing.

These were fine.  I still shop in them to this day.  Somehow, though, like the mall shops, they didn’t give me the sense of hunting for treasure that I felt when shopping in less polished venues.  Also, although some of these shared a name with Barnes and Noble, they lacked the vast selection I recalled, the sense of being able to find a book on just about anything if I looked carefully enough.

When I moved to Albuquerque, I found myself surrounded by bookstores: chain stores, independent stores, stores packed with used books.  There were even stores that specialized in certain types of books.  One store – Page One – tried to do it all.  On one side of the street they had a big store specializing in new books.  On the other side, there was an even bigger store called Page One Two that specialized in used books.  Page One Two included a mysterious room devoted solely to rare and collectable volumes.

The staff at Page One and the other independents seemed to know about books and authors in a way that very few of the chain stores did.  (There was one local Barnes and Noble that was different but only because the manager worked hard to hire and retain “book people.”)

With the advent of the internet, our choices for brick and mortar book stores started shrinking.  I won’t go into that story, since it’s one that readers all over the U.S. have experienced.   More important, however, was that the remaining bookstores seemed to suffer a major identity crisis.

Coffee shops attached to the bookstores burgeoned.  I admit to wondering about the logic of these, given the amount of periodical literature I have seen used and abused in these areas.  Does it matter if people spend more time in the shop if they don’t buy anything and ruin the material they enjoy with their coffee?

Another change was that content of bookstores became more generic.  Even in the “independents,” much space seemed given over to the flavor of the month.  Miss a particular release and they’d offer to order it for you…

This was a self-destructive tactic, if I’ve ever seen one.  It served as a reminder that, with the internet, anyone can order anything and often get free shipping on top of it.  I did this myself when a specific book I wanted to get for my niece was not available in any local store.  I tried – at expense to myself in terms of gasoline and time – to buy local but, while there were many copies of the latest bestsellers languishing on display tables, I couldn’t find one copy of this classic.

After I’d made the order, I chanced into one of the book stores I’d phoned and saw on the shelf a new edition of the book I’d been seeking, only with a slightly different title.  Apparently, the clerk I had spoken to was not familiar with the store’s stock  He might as well have been selling shoes and telling me that my size was not available, rather than that there was a newer, fancier model waiting for me.

Currently, a rumor is spreading here in Albuquerque that when the current editor of the book page in our local Sunday paper retires, the newspaper plans to discontinue that page entirely.   Not only will this rob us of the half-dozen or so thoughtful reviews, but also there will no longer be a place where local book events (signings, readings, contests, and the like) will be listed.

Will that be the end of book events because there will be fewer places to learn about them?  Or will some enterprising person create a website?  I don’t know.  I do know it will hurt the remaining culture of the bookstore since one thing bookstores can offer that on-line cannot is an opportunity for authors and readers to meet.

What do you want from a bookstore?  Would you regret if bookstores vanished?  Is shopping on-line good enough?  Better?  Worse?   What would advice would you offer someone who wanted to start a bookstore?

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13 Responses to “Bookstores: A Magical Realm”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    That’s a good question, because sooner or later, I will have to open a bookstore. My mother has perhaps 10,000 books in her house. While she’s thrown out the paperbacks that are falling apart, mostly she just laughs and says, “some day, this will all be yours.”

    I don’t particularly want to throw all those books out. I love books too. What to do? Years ago, the owner of the local used book shop (which has since closed), says he couldn’t buy them all, there were too many. I’ve talked with my mother about opening a shop on Amazon to sell off the books she doesn’t want while they’re still current and worth money. No dice. It’ll all be mine some day.

    Wonderful. The hard part for me is that book values change. It’s easier to sell a first edition for a lot of money right after the author died. Twenty years later, when he’s been forgotten and all his books are out of print? It’s worthless. I might still love that first edition for the memories of a good book, but that part doesn’t sell well. There are lots of good books out there, and the new ones don’t take up any shelf space unless we want them to.

    Anyway, those of us who are bookworms and the heirs of bookworms really do need to figure out how to open our own little online bookstores. We need to convince ourselves and our elders that it might be in their interest to let go, just a little, right now, not laugh and kick the can down the road.

    That, and steel ourselves to rent the trash bins. The saddest thing I’m learning is that all books have a lifespan, and they only move while there’s still life in them.

    • janelindskold Says:

      You, Alan, and, indirectly, your mom, introduced us to Arthur Upfield’s work. We’ve only been able to locate three or four of his novels locally and they do not appear to be in print.

      I suppose we’ll end up looking for more on-line, but it’s just not the same as holding it, reading a few pages, then deciding “Yes! This is the book for me.”

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Don’t worry, I’m going to make sure the Arthur Upfields get saved. Those are not third rate! It’s a pity they’re so hard to find though. Perhaps Alan might have better luck?

  2. Dominique Says:

    Noooooooooo! *steps onto soap box* They cannot get rid of the book page! Erg! This stuff gets me so riled up! I love, love, LOVE books. And they are becoming obsolete, and it is driving me insane! What’s more, is everyone I know loves books. Not e-readers, but tangible books! One of my all time favorite activities is to go and just wander around and kill time in a bookstore. How can others not enjoy this as well? Has life really become so fast paced that individuals cannot go to bookstores and just enjoy some down time? Do we really need instant gratification all of the time? Also, to very respectfully disagree with Heteromeles, I don’t buy any books just for worth, I buy them because I want a copy of them on my shelf, to read, to look at, to enjoy . And while yes, they have a lifespan, its a damn long lifespan. I have books in my family from the 1700s! *steps back down off of soap box* Okay, I’m down now. Sorry, for the rant. 🙂

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    I worked in a used and rare bookstore in between stretches of college a while back. I loved it–just the age and history and uniqueness of a particular book. But the store couldn’t have lasted without the internet. A huge percentage of our sales were done online. But buying online takes away from the joy of browsing and discovery–finding something different and intriguing.

    The store where I worked went out of business around 2006. It was a small store–usually 2 or 3 part-time employees plus the owner. The owner was in the U.S Army Reserve, and was called up for multiple extended deployments, including 18 months in Afghanistan. That would basically mean doom for any small business, much less a specialized store like that.

    One of his former employees has since opened his own bookstore about a block away, with a drastically different atmosphere and business model, selling both new and used books, as well as comics and gaming stuff, and providing space for gamers and sponsoring gaming events. I browse there often looking for interesting remaindered or discounted non-fiction as well as hitting the SFF section.

    The other bookstore I frequent a lot is a big chain store that also does music, video rentals, and video games. But their large coffee shop provides a space for local musicians to get together and jam regularly. Tonight is our old-time, folk, and Celtic jam. Because they are so gracious in providing that space for us, I try and shop there fairly regularly, especially for the new releases. However, their selection is fairly limited, and I often have to go online to find specific titles.

    So my advice to anyone looking to open a bookstore is to find something unique to offer the community, such as the gaming or music space, and to make yourself involved in the community. That way, you’ll attract people who will find ways to support your store.

    Shopping online for books is good if you have a specific title you’re searching for, but not for browsing and discovery. I’ve found some of my favorite books just by browsing in bookstores and libraries. I picked up a copy of Through WoIf’s Eyes at a college bookstore back around 2003 as an impulse buy. I plan to keep browsing and buying books for the rest of my life.

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    Don’t apologize Dominique. I get it. However, I’m in a situation where I’m running out of shelf space, and dealing with family members who are not bibliophiles. I’ve bought some ebooks for myself, simply because it a) provides me with the text, which is what I’m really after, b) takes up next to no space, and c) is available when I need it. Some books really don’t need paper.

    Personally, I’m glad you’ve got books from the 1700s. While my family does not have any like that, there are plenty I want to save. The problem is that very few authors are worth saving that long. In the case of my parents, they were in to many authors who I have no interest in reading. Many of those authors are now dead, their books are out of print, and frankly, very few people care (think third-rate murder mystery authors from the 60s and 70s, if it helps to have a referent). Worse, my mother isn’t going to reread any of those books. She jokes that they’re insulation in the big bookshelves against the walls, and that’s about the only purpose they serve.

    Should I treasure those books? Why? I’ve got my own wall of books. Unlike my parents, I’ve had to move a lot, and so I’ve regularly weeded out my junk until the last few years.

    I’m sentimental about books too, and I love to get yet another reader for any book I no longer want. That’s why I hate the thought of renting the dumpster and disposing of them. Still, I can only afford so much sentimentality. There are no good used book stores near me, and the public libraries have limits on what they will accept as donations, even for resale. My options are limited. I’m willing to try selling on Amazon, but only so far.

    • Chad Merkley Says:

      I’d recommend cataloging everything as soon as you can, Title, author, publisher, date, edition information, ISBN if present, and condition, and give it a number. Toss anything published by a book club or book of the month club. Anything that should have a dust jacket but doesn’t is probably low value or worthless. Anything with broken binding is probably worthless.

      abebooks.com is another outlet for selling used books and might be worth looking into. You might also find an estate liquidator who’s interested. Having a prepared catalog might make a sale easier.

      But you’re right about the difficulties and the lack of demand for many books. I hope that you and your mother aren’t forced to deal with this anytime soon, though.

  5. Peter Says:

    I’m a pretty hardcore bibliophile. I used to have a T-shirt that read “Migratory lifeform with a tropism for bookstores” until it suffered the inevitable fate of much-loved T-shirts.and faded away.

    And I no longer spend much, if any, time in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Some of that is because of practical concerns (it’s hugely expensive to ship a 10,000 volume library internationally), but a lot of it is…well, let me just recoup my last visit to a bookstore.

    I went into the local Indigo (Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble or the now-defunct Borders) for the first time in a couple of years (I’ve been out of the country) this past summer. While not in the same league as a good independent specialist bookstore with knowledgeable staff and a good environment ( (sadly the really good ones in this city have all gone out of business, so it’s big players or nothing), I remembered it being a decent place to just spend a few hours browsing followed by the purchase of a handful of books that had caught my attention.

    After spending 45 minutes or so navigating my way past the inevitable Starbucks, the magazine rack, the scented candles, the display of throw pillows, the DVD/Blu Ray/CD section, the kitchen supplies, and the selection of notebooks and pens, I finally managed to find the small upstairs room where they hid the actual books (tucked away behind the stuffed animals section of the toy department).

    Making my way to the “Sci-Fi” (sic) section revealed a total of three standard-sized bookstore sections of shelving, one of which was dedicated entirely to sharecropped media tie-in novels, one divided about half and half between manga/comic book collections and coffee-table books of the concept art of the TV show of the book of A Game of Thrones and the last of which held actual books, mostly by David Eddings and Piers Anthony.

    Then I went home and bought two hundred dollars worth of e-books

  6. janelindskold Says:

    A lot of thought here… I like the idea of bookstores that combine interests, especially when they feed on each other as gaming and reading do.

    Music done right would work for me as well.

    However, coffee shops that permit people to abuse the merchandise, not so much.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Oddly enough, a friend sent me two articles last week (via snail mail!) in which people were talking about bookstores and how important they are for the process of discovery.

    Both were published right around the time I wrote my piece. I wonder if the holiday shopping season is showing us what we’re missing?

    I’ll still shop on-line for things I can’t find in a store — but those brick and mortar places will continue to get my support because I’d miss them when they were gone.

  8. Patrick Nichols Says:

    I know that this topic is a little old, but I stumbled accross it while looking for something I commented on in hopes Id find a response and figured I HAD to pop in this little tidbit since its clear you like hunting as much as everyone else.
    Go check out Booksalefinder.com
    occasionally libraries and other organizations and such have small book sales to raise money for various purposes and to get rid of excess donated books. The resulting sale tends to be on the cheap side for anyone willing to dig through the stacks. AND I do mean “Dig”. Ive spent easily 2 hours browsing one of the larger sales and the smaller ones can burn off an hour in no time. Prices tend to range from 25 cents for childrens books to 50 cents for adult paperbacks and around a buck for hardbounds(depending on the sale, sometimes they sell at higher prices, like a buck or two higher at most). Some of them even have whats called a bag sale, which often happens on the last day of the larger sales, where they give you a paper bag and you fill it for 5 bucks with whatever you can find thats leftover from the rest of the sale.
    all in all, Its become my favorite way to get ahold of books for REALLY cheap and to have fun a bit doing some serious digging.
    also, I found this link for finding used book stores.
    http://www.usedbooks101.com/
    Good luck Jane

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