As I was driving into work, I heard an unnerving story on the radio. It was about Amazon, the largest corporate book retailer in the world. I listened with trepid curiosity as a caller in support of the company’s expansion went head to head with an owner of a local bookstore. The callers made the age-old arguments that arise when technology challenges the continuance of tradition; one vigorously vying for the convenience of a digital future while the other nostalgically recalled the advantages of our papery past. The latter spoke with some desperation, as if this was her final stand, her last chance to tell her story. She spoke of things beyond the joy of feeling the weight of a book, the smell and feel of paper. ‘The culture is what we’re losing, bookstores have always been what bring readers together.’
I thought about that for a minute. She was absolutely right. Bookstores did bring readers together. Books were not the only casualties of Amazon’s flood into literature; there was a culture at stake. The heart-felt words of the distressed caller made me realize how I had always taken bookstores for granted. I began to mourn the loss of something I had hardly known, and I decided that it was time to visit one before it was too late.
Porter Square Books is one of the most well known independent bookstores in the Boston area, and this is where I began my search for the endangered book culture. The first thing I noticed was the dog bowl at the front door. I had read that dogs were welcome inside the store, and I wished I had brought mine along. Inside, the place was buzzing. Casually dressed employees sorted books and chatted with customers. There was a coffee bar in the corner, and the smell of fresh espresso underscored the vibrant pace of book browsing. Customers filtered into their sections of interest, which were each divided into coves of booked walls. The spaces were so small that people seemed to be bumping into each other all over the place.
Two woman in the Cooking section were discussing recipes they had both found in the same Japenese cook book. In the Travel section, a young man pointed to pictures in a book of ancient ruins and told his mother stories of his experiences abroad. In Classic Literature, an employee was describing Thoreau’s majestic sketches of a New England Fall to a man who seemed to be salivating for such a literary feast.
I wandered around haphazardly, eavesdropping and browsing the shelves. Though it wasn’t quite a library, everybody kept their voices down and smiled at each other, like they were all in on the secret. They seemed very much a small society of booklovers in their place of worship, and I felt like a welcome guest.
I bought a few moleskins and a map of the United States. It wasn’t much, but it felt good to make any contribution. On my way out, I noticed a calendar marked with events. Every week had three or four authors coming in to lead discussions and sign books. I scribbled down a few dates and names and told myself that next time I’d bring my dog.
Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, has recently opened up her own bookstore and taken advantage of her publicity to uphold the cause. After losing an independent bookstore she had cherished since childhood, Patchett decided to take matters into her own hands and recreate a literary sanctum for her community in Nashville, TN. She recognizes that the value of a bookstore is embodied in the community it creates (and visa versa).
Patchett wrote an article for The Atlantic, in which she tells us just how badly bookstores have suffered, and why there is still hope for them. “Now that we could order a book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm.”
I agreed heartily before, but did not understand her distress until, like the woman I heard on the radio, Patchett began to wax prophetic. “I promised whoever was listening that from those very ashes, the small independent bookstore would arise.”
My experience in Porter Square was brief, but it was enough to make me understand why bookstores might be worth fighting for. Patchett finishes the interview with a plea to the consumer, and a resounding cry for book people to unite and make their voices heard over the cranking of Amazon’s assembly lines. “Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”