"People Need Bookstores"

One night before I moved from Portland, Oregon, I went over the Powell’s, the well-known bookstore just a few blocks from my home. It was the first time I had been there in a long while. I went upstairs to the book holding room. I had ordered a book from their warehouse the day before and here it was the very next day and then came downstairs, where a reading was about to begin, and eventually down another flight to the new book section on the 1st floor. It felt really good to be there, so close to where my home was, even though the night was cold and wet.

The next morning I thought it might be hard to live in a place where Powell’s wasn’t just a couple of blocks down the way. And then I wondered if a bookstore, if Powell’s, could keep a person, keep me, in a town that I found so cold and oppressive most of the year. For me, and so many others, a bookstore, especially one like Powell’s is really the heart of a community.

And yet each day we learn of another bookstore closing. Even the large chain bookstores are beginning to close now. Borders will be shutting down over 200 stores across the country, including its largest store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Barnes and Noble is also closing some of their largest stores, including the “megastore” near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. One by one both the large and the small stores are giving up the game. It is not unlike losing one long-time friend after another.

But every once in a while we hear about a really fine bookstore that is still there and may even be doing well. Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, the bookstore owned by the writer Louise Erdrich is an example. In an interview in the latest Paris Review (#195) Erdrich talks about her store as well as bookstores in general. I don’t think I have read anything more compelling than her description of what a bookstore means to a community and to its readers.

She says that while the store is a business, it is far more about the people who work there and the people who come to find books. “But walking into a small bookstore, you immediately feel the presence of the mind that has chosen the books on the shelves. You communicate intellectually with the buyer. Then if you’re lucky, you meet another great reader in person…”

It is silly of me to try to convey Erdrich’s high praise of bookstores. Better that I let her speak for herself.

“People need bookstores and need other readers. We need the intimate communication with others who love books. We don’t really think we do because of the ease that the Internet has introduced, but we still need the physical world more than we know. Little bookstores are community services, not profitable business enterprises. Books are just too inexpensive online and there are too many of them, so a physical bookstore has to offer something different. Perhaps little bookstores will attain nonprofit status. Maybe one fine day the government will subsidize them, so they can thrive as nonprofit entities. Some very clever bookstore, probably not us, is going to manage to do that and become the paradigm of the rest.”

Will we ever see the day that the government, state or federal, subsidizes little bookstores? For the cost of subsidizing General Motors, the government could easily keep alive every small bookstore in this country and open a sizable number of new ones along the way.

In the interview Erdrich also had some very sensible things to say about the future of books. “As for the book as an object, it’s like bread. It is such a perfectly evolved piece of technology that it will be hard to top….the paperback—so low-low tech and high-tech at the same time—it is also a great piece of technology.”

Unlike an electronic book, it can be given to someone else, you can write in it, you can even put it on your bookshelf. “I also like that you can throw books across the room, as people have done with mine….The whole absence of touching and feeling a book would be a loss…”

At the same time, she knows that there are many readers who just want the text so that electronic versions are best viewed as another method of publication. She does not object to them. She says, “I don’t feel the sense of alarm and threat that some other writers seem to feel about e-books.”

I am with her from A to Z on books, bookstores, and the future of reading. And she has said it all so vigorously and so eloquently.