Thursday, September 15, 2005

In Praise of Independent Bookstores

An independent bookstore opened in my neighbourhood last week. This seems such an extraordinary occurrence in today’s book market that I didn’t quite dare to believe it when the “Opening Soon” sign went up. The front window was covered in brown paper, but there was one corner where the paper curled up offering a glimpse of the renovations going on inside. All summer I stopped every time I walked past and peered in wistfully. What sort of bookstore would it be? When would it open? Would it ever open? Finally I went off on holiday and when I returned, voila, there it was, doors flung open with a wealth of books inside to browse and buy.

I’ve made frequent references in this blog to borrowing books from the library. But make no mistake, I buy plenty of books too. And I have to admit, I’m promiscuous about it; I’ll buy almost anywhere. I buy online: out of print childhood favourites on ebay and abebooks, obscure local history pamphlets from small British presses, and new books I can’t find anywhere else on amazon. I frequent several second-hand bookstores where I’ve often discovered books that I didn’t realize I wanted or needed until I pulled them off the shelf. And yes, I will buy at the closest big box store, particularly if I suddenly decide at 9 pm on a Wednesday that there’s a book I can’t do without for a moment longer. But for shiny new books, I prefer to spend my money at independents and what a joy now to be able to meander just a few blocks from my house and find some fabulous, unexpected gem in the new bookstore.

It’s long been a fantasy of mine to have my own bookstore. (Clearly I’m not alone in this -- see Book World and Bookish.) But I have no head for business and I understand that it’s never been tougher to prosper in the bookselling business than it is now. So I’ll content myself with doing my bit to keep other people’s bookstores afloat and with living the bookseller’s life vicariously through evocative memoirs like Betsy Burton’s The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller.

Burton’s book is organized rather like a bookstore, with thematic sections to browse: fiction, crime fiction, poetry, western literature, and children’s books. Each of these sections is replete with praise for beloved books, lists of recommended titles, and tales of successful author visits as well as of occasional readings gone wrong. Much illuminating inside information about the book business is interwoven throughout. Burton writes with refreshing candour about the many challenges, large and small, that she has faced in the nearly thirty years that her Salt Lake City store, The King’s English, has thus far been in business: difficult business partnerships, the odd larcenous employee, censorship in all its guises, and simply surviving as an independent in today’s corporate landscape. Shining through on every page is Burton’s deep love of books and her passionate commitment to a lifetime’s work of matchmaking each reader with exactly the right books.

Reading Burton’s book has strengthened my resolve to shop independent, and I suspect that the new bookstore up the street will be the chief beneficiary.

1 comment:

Quillhill said...

What is it that makes independent bookstores special? Why does one remember fondly a used bookstore, but not a library? Why don't we have the same feelings about a laundromat, or a grocery? Can feelings for a place such as a bakery, or a local fruit stand, match those for an independent bookstore? Is it the "independent" or the "book" or something else that makes them so special to so many?