Yesterday I learned that one of my favorite bookstores has closed. On the website where I learned of the closing, the author wrote:
“For me, to lose just one such institution is like grieving the pending loss of our future. What will become of us in a world without the tactile experiences of a book? Without the kinship of the neighborhood bookstore?”
Naturally, I am aware that independent bookstores throughout the country are closing. But this one hit home. The bookstore, Twenty-Third Avenue Books, was located in Portland, Oregon, my former hometown, the place where I had lived for most of my adult life. Even though I no longer live there, I keenly share the sadness of the writer who informed me that, even if I did, I would no longer have the “the kinship of that neighborhood bookstore.”
I had been going there for years as I lived just a couple of blocks away and while its inventory was never very large, they always had a truly exceptional contemporary fiction collection. They also had my favorite bookmark and fortunately I still have a goodly number--like the one at the top of the post.
When I read the news, I found it hard to believe, although I guess I shouldn’t have been the least bit surprised given the state of the bookstore world these days and how empty it felt during my last visits. Other bookstores in towns where I have lived have also gone out of business recently—Cody’s in Berkeley, Stacy’s in San Francisco, Duttons in Los Angeles. Following its recent closure, Kepler’s in Palo Alto, where I practically lived as an undergraduate has been given a reprieve by community donors in Silicon Valley and may be able to weather the bookstore-closing-storm.
In response to a Paris Review (#164 Winter 2002-2003) question about his favorite bookstore, Richard Powers said:
“You go into that bookstore hungering for a world and a coloration and a register in sounds and senses, and you run your finger along the shelf and wonder, Is this it? Is this it? And you find something that’s close, or something that surprises you in its divergence from what you needed. But finally you can’t find the book that you want to read, and that’s when you start writing.”
And then later:
“There’s a scene in Plowing where one of the people in Seattle goes into an enormous used bookstore, looking for a book that had moved him as a child and that he had been looking for since the age of nine. It’s a story about a boy whose drawings somehow come alive, and he’s never been able to find this book again. What the writer knows is that the profession that he’s entered into, and the life that he’s taken on, is exactly the desire to recreate this story that he’s never been able to find again.”
There is--but now only used to be--a poem by Jane Smiley on the wall at the of Twenty Third Avenue Books that sums up precisely what is so special about a bookstore and why the closing of this one is distressing.
The Worth of a Bookstore
“Leaving any bookstore is hard, especially on a day in
August, when the street outside burns and glares, and
the books inside are cool and crisp to the touch;
especially on a day in January, when the wind is blowing,
the ice is treacherous, and the books inside seem to
gather together in colorful warmth. It’s hard to leave
a bookstore any day of the year, though, because a
bookstore is one of the few places where all the
cantankerous, conflicting, alluring voices of the world
co-exist in peace and order, and the avid reader is
as free as a person can possibly be, because she is
free to choose among them.”
And the heroine of Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind describes a dream that is one I also harbor from time to time.
“All my life, though, among my daydreams about careers that might have made me happy, has been this one: a small shop somewhere, some partner and I buying and selling used books.”
What booklover has not had such a daydream?