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?
I note that Quillhill is a bookseller, so probably these questions are rhetorical. But he got me thinking.
I do have fond memories of libraries, particularly of the one that I visited regularly as a child. The Children’s Department was decorated on a Winnie-the-Pooh theme (based on the wonderful drawings by E.H. Shepard, not the Disney version). Story Hour was held in a cave-like room that one entered through what appeared to be a door in the trunk of a tree just like the House at Pooh Corner. There was a plushy blue carpet on the floor and star-shaped lights embedded in the ceiling. I have vivid memories of lying on that carpet looking up at the twinkly lights while listening to the story ladies reading aloud. Out in the main room, one of the walls was just one long window seat with steps leading up to it. Each week I selected my ten books (that was the limit), then perched on the window seat and disappeared into them until my mom and dad came upstairs to collect me. I can even recall the precise places along the shelves where my favourite books were located, the ones that I checked out over and over again.
I can’t claim similar fond feelings for any of the laundromats or grocery stores that I’ve passed through in my life. However, there has been the odd bar or café that I've embraced as a second home. There, it’s all about the ambience of the place -- the décor, the food, and, most importantly, the people.
All of which takes me back to the initial question: Is it the “independent” or the “book” that makes independent bookstores so special to so many? Certainly the books are central. Being in a room full of books generates a paradoxical combination of comfort and excitement that I've only otherwise experienced in a really good relationship. But in a truly great bookstore, the sort that inspires devotion, it’s never just books randomly tossed together. It’s an inventory carefully chosen and arranged in a space permeated by the personalities of those who own and run the store. It’s the books together with the independent character of the store that make for magic.
Anyone else out there with memories of beloved libraries or bookstores to share?