You are browsing the archive for Bookstores.

Ann Patchett and the Battle for the Bookstores

December 13, 2012 in Bookstores, Contemporary Literature, culture boundaries, Economy, Literary News

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.”

The Bazaar and the Beautiful at the Boston International Book Fair

December 2, 2012 in Bookstores, Classic Literature, Literary Festivals, Literature

In these days of instant information, it’s not often that readers get to indulge their fascination with physical books as objects of desire. At first glance, the 36th Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair looked like any trade expo held in a harshly lit convention room. But it turned out to be somewhere between an art exhibition and an exotic bazaar. With only a few hours to inspect the stalls, I felt like a tourist stumbling into a city’s hidden market on the last day of holiday. This is one of only three American book fairs endorsed by the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers and the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.  It’s an outing not only reserved for the serious collector, but for anyone interested in books and the art of books.  Because this is an International event for the small world of Antiquarian booksellers, it’s also a lively gathering for the booksellers themselves.

With cocktail in hand, Ken Sanders of Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City gave me a sense of the camaraderie of booksellers who meet for a couple of days each year for banter, bartering and the renewing of old friendships.  Booksellers have taken a variety of routes into the trade. Ken told me how he quite literally worked his way up the (step) ladder from stacking shelves at a bookshop.  Erin, of Royal Books was an art student with a printing background who started out restoring books in her college library. Erin’s employer at Royal Books, Kevin Johnson, stocks first editions that were made into films and has written about forgotten detective novels that were turned into noir cinema. The Lucius Books stall, which specialized in first editions of crime novels, was manned by suave looking ‘agents’ from York, England.  A selection of gorgeous Ian Fleming first editions drew my eye, and founder James Hallgate explained to me that they were illustrated by a guy named Richard Chopping, who also wrote The Fly.  According to Hallgate a lot of British illustrators in the 50s and 60s were also writers.  Fleming and Chopping were friends, so Fleming’s influence is stamped all over these editions. The gun on the copy of From Russia With Love is a drawing of a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver belonging to Geoffrey Boothroyd, a weapons expert who wrote to Ian Fleming expressing his admiration for the series, but advising that Bond use better weapons. As a tribute, Fleming used his weapon of choice for the cover and created the official armorer character called Major Boothroyd who appears in the novel Dr. No.

One of my favorite booksellers was Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis Booksellers in Portland, Maine. Kahn is an ex-hacker and self-confessed lover of ‘shiny things’. Lux Mentis is located on ‘Marginal Way’ in Portland – an ideal address for an esoteric bookshop.  Kahn describes the logic behind his collection as ‘idiosyncratic crap that I love’. He affectionately maintains a ‘sex ‘n’ death’ section, where I was drawn in by the sublime and the ridiculous, including an interesting high concept art book (not for the sensitive reader) and the gorgeous Séance for a Minyan by the renowned copper engraver Michael Kuch. The book is a moving meditation on the death of Kuch’s lifelong teacher, the renowned sculptor and printmaker, Leonard Baskin. Khan also recommended a book of woodcuts by a Dublin artist about the sinking of the Titanic. The story is cleverly told from the point of view of the printers onboard the Titanic. As strange as it may seem, the Titanic really did have a printing shop aboard.  One of the most exciting things about the fair was the mixing of rare productions by modern printers with older books. Unfortunately, because of the relationship between scarcity and desire, it’s not just old books that have a high price tag, but limited edition zines and relics of pop culture too.  At Brian Cassidy, Bookseller, I saw such treasures as a proof copy of Fight Club, a first edition of the cyber-punk zine Boing Boing and a framed self-portrait doodle by Allen Ginsberg as a cartoon Buddha.  An original photograph of Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe was priced at $6000.

If I’d had the time, I would have looked at more children’s books and maps, or lingered at Scientia Books, with its beautiful meticulous anatomy books and its intriguing box of books ‘signed by Nobel laureates’. Among the most impressive items I saw were the propaganda prints of the epic funeral of Charles II. The dynasty was reinforced by over the top public mourning, which lasted for months after the king’s death, throughout France. I was reminded of the theatrical scenes of public mourning at the funeral of Kim Jong Il.

Before leaving, I asked Ian Kahn whether he was ever reluctant to part with his treasures. He said wryly that if he really values something, he prices it ‘aggressively’. But I wonder if he still minds when someone comes along who is prepared to pay the price.  Kahn explains that in the trade, getting the books to their ideal owner is the goal. At the point where someone is willing to pay the price, the right owner is the one who wants it most.  However, Kahn holds on to some old James Joyce editions that were read to him as a child, just in case.

Happy Halloween From Literary Traveler!

October 31, 2012 in American Authors, American History, Bookstores, Classic Literature, Dark New England, Edgar Allen Poe, Famous Museums, Halloween, History, Holidays Literary Traveler, Horror, Horror Writers, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Psychology, Short Stories, Stephen King, Vampires in Literature

Literary Traveler has been very excited about Halloween…and it’s finally here! To celebrate, we’d like to show off all the work we did in advance of the spookiest day of the year. All Treats.

Halloween Reflections – “Halloween is a time when the veil between the dead and the living was at its thinnest.”

Mercy Brown: American Vampire – “Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough.”

The House of the Seven Gables – “If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton.”

The Hawthorne Hotel – “Despite general manager Judi Lederhaus’ assertions, hundreds of tourists stream into the stately lodgings ready to embark on a supernatural safari.”

The Psychology of Salem – “The most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification.  This makes decision making tricky.”

Master of Creep: Edgar Allen Poe – “Poe created complete universes in which the reader starts to believe the narrator.”

The Salem Witch Trials – “In 1692, fear spread through Salem, Massachusetts like contagion, infecting the minds of the mainstream, and claiming the lives of those among the periphery.”

Literary Traveler Goes to Salem – “I mosey by a zombie playing the saxophone for a couple of onlookers and I am officially sold on the city of Salem.”

Skip to toolbar