I remember my first Amazon purchase. It was also my first Internet purchase. My curiosity was stirred by something I had read about Brion Gysin’s book, The Last Museum, and I wanted to read the book for myself. The problem was that The Last Museum was not available through the public library or in any bookstore (even by special order). My sister who had already bought some rare and out of print books from Amazon suggested I try it. I did and have been hooked ever since.
I remember the service at Amazon being quick and courteous. My customer service rep and I exchanged several emails before I was comfortable enough to buy the book without ever having seen it. The only problem I have with my first Internet book buying transaction is that I no longer have the book! — The casualty of a move. Since then I’ve bought a variety of things in addition to books from Amazon; from Tee Shirts to TVs.
I don’t remember the first book I bought at a brick and mortar bookstore. I can’t even say for certain that the Strand was the first bookstore I wandered into. Up until then the books in my life (from elementary school to middle school) were either presents from my parents, borrowed from the library, worn dog-earred editions (assigned reading books) or bought via Scholastic order forms. There were also a lot of Norton anthologies.
However, I do remember the feeling of meandering between the mottled halls of books at my local library. I remember the calming scent of old books. It was a “sweet" scent, warm. Not as immediate and intense as the smell of baking but it’s that same sensation for me. It’s soothing, safe.
It’s akin to the sentimentality Melanie Benjamin writes with when she asks “Where Were You When Borders Declared Bankruptcy?” It’s akin to that scene where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet in person for the first time in You’ve Got Mail. She doesn’t know he’s the owner of the rival chain bookstore that’s hurting her little independent store. She gives a tempered rant about helping her mother sell books: “And it wasn’t that she was just selling books – She was helping people turn out to whoever they were going to be — Because when you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way no other reading in your whole life does… ”
In her article “End of Days for Bookstores?" Lynn Neary posits: “the tables have turned. In the era of online buying and the e-book, both currently dominated by Amazon, the big chains are in trouble — and new technologies may provide independent bookstores with a lifeline.”
In the post e-book, post Internet sales world, The Shop Around the Corner (You’ve Got Mail’s small independent bookstore) thrives while Fox Books (Mail’s large chain store) struggles to survive. Lynn quotes Jessica Stockton Bagnuloof Greenlight Books, saying chain stores “don’t have the same emotional connection to their neighborhood that a local store does.”
I think she’s right. There wasn’t a local bookstore in my neighborhood when I was little, but there was a record store and Nino’s, the neighborhood pizzeria. In addition to being my introduction to pizza, Nino’s was my introduction to the pinball machine. I don’t think it’s overly far fetched to attribute my fondness of pizza and pinball to happy memories of the neighborhood I grew up in.
By calling her article "End of Days for Bookstores” Lynn summons images of a “Bookseller Armageddon.” In the article, Rebecca Fitting, who co-owns Greenlight Books with Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, compares the situation to the extinction of the dinosaurs: "I kind of feel like we’re coming to end of the age of dinosaurs and there’s all these warmblooded animals running around instead."
If she is referring to independent bookstores as “warmblooded animals running around,” she would be wrong. Within the framework of a dinosaur metaphor, the more accurate classification would be chain stores as the vanishing dinosaur and digital media as the newly introduced mammals “running around.” Independent bookstores would most accurately be classified as Triops longicaudatus, the longtail tadpole shrimp – one of the oldest animal species still in existence.
Triops longicaudatus is also the species least changed over time (approximately 70 million years). The social endurance (relevance) of the neighborhood or independent bookstore is the “emotional connection” Jessica mentions. Neighborhood bookstores are (for lack of a better word) “cozy.” Neighborhood bookstores are a convenient escape from the stresses of daily living. They are also places to commune with others for like causes and conversation.
While I do believe small independent bookstores will have to “keep growing and changing,” I feel it is their management of their “sameness” that will keep them relevant as e-readers become dinosaurs to the rise of new media mammals.