(Two books from Kramerbooks & Afterwords, along with The Golden Age)
As the chain bookstores and, if we’re honest, the emerging popularity of e-books continue to put the squeeze on indie bookstores and used bookstores, it’s important to recognize what we’re in danger of losing. I was reminded of this issue when Ann and I recently explored Washington D.C. after the Capclave convention.
Whereas chain bookstores tend to be the same, with some variation, indies and used bookstores don’t just have their own personality—they have different books. Chain bookstores can include a lot of inventory, and they can stock some pretty esoteric things, but when we stepped into Kramerbooks, for example, I was immediately struck by the differences. One difference is in your face: what’s emphasized and what’s not emphasized. For example, the Europa Editions and NYRB Press titles pictured below were much easier to find at Kramerbooks than in the chain store we entered. Clearly, Kramerbooks valued these editions more. In the case of the two books about an Irish island pictured above, I don’t think the chain store even carried copies. In addition, Kramerbooks’ noir/mystery section was much more heavily slanted toward interesting stuff.
In another section of town, the rather awesome Adams Morgan district, we spent a great half-hour in the used bookstore Idle Time Books. I’m fairly sure we wouldn’t have found the Hama Tuma just a shelf away from the book on Ruskin in a chain store, and I’m not even sure either book is still in print to be stocked by any new store. When talking about used books, the internet certainly helps track down stuff that’s out of print. But on the other hand, we didn’t go into Idle Time wanting to buy a book on Ruskin or a book by Hama Tuma. It’s the wonderful chance encounter that created the opportunity, and the eccentricities or organizing principle of the buyer there, combined with the vagaries of coincidence or fate that brought someone there to sell those books to Idle Time Books in the first place.
Another used bookstore, Bartleby’s Books in Georgetown had a completely different feel, texture, approach. Bartleby’s had quite a good selection of antiquarian books as well as first edition fiction in fine condition. For example, a first edition of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles that I lusted after but ultimately put back in favor of two less expensive editions, pictured below. I had never heard of Vassilikos, and I’d never heard of this particular Kobo Abe novel. Even if browsing the internet, even with a sample to read, I don’t think I would’ve ordered the Vassilikos online. In fact, it took putting the book back down, picking it up again and reading in a different place, finding myself attracted to the sleekness of the design, putting it back down, and then picking it up for a final time and being convinced by a third passage…before I truly became the owner of that book. There was a similar period of acclimation to the Abe. Neither book is likely to be found in the chain bookstores, certainly both available online, yes, but only in the conjunction of our presence in that store on that day, having just read more of Gravity’s Rainbow that morning along with part of a thriller, and only in the presence of the book as physical object, did the elements come together in such a way that we now have both books.
This isn’t a mystical process, but it is a cumulative one, and it’s not so much about fetishizing the physical object as it is about the search and the role of chance and the seeming role of fate (the sense of it being meant to encounter a particular book). Physical bookstores, of which indie bookstores and used bookstores are often the best examples, also remind us that a book is part of the physical world in away that ordering on the internet or downloading to an e-reader cannot. In other words, I want the whole experience of book buying, not just the clicking and the acquiring. I know, too, that the culmination of these experiences of chance and fate have consequences, influences, on not just my further reading but also on my own writing and other book projects. That by rolling the dice in this way, I’m allowing new things and new experiences to come my way.
In short, I want to be surprised, and not just by similar groupings of books created through an algorithm. I’d much rather be influenced by the uncertain and even eccentric or crackpot algorithm of the individual bookstore owner’s or manager’s mind. I’d rather enter a memory cathedral than a department store.
Call me old-fashioned, but don’t say there isn’t something wonderful about the full-on experience of buying a good or unusual book. Am I right, half-right, or wrong? And to what extent do you as a book-lover benefit from the used or indie bookstores in your area?