Monday, January 23, 2017

Thank you for your patronage

T
HERE are few things more dispiriting to a bibliomaniac than a closed bookstore.

In the last few months I've seen lots of storefronts around my area go dark for good, many making their final bow right after the Christmas season. Sporting goods stores, fabric stores, paint emporiums, cramped and dusty little discount shops, corner restaurants -- all faded away, with little signs on the doors reading "Out of Business" and "Closed for Good" and "Thanks for your 23 years of patronage" and the like. And each one of these is sad in its own way, if it represents the death of someone's dream.

But a shuttered bookstore represents the death of many dreams -- not just of the people who run it, but the people who patronize it, browsing and reading and loving the work of the people who take the risk of writing their dreams down and sharing them. Yes, I know there's Amazon.com and Powell's, and there are certainly other brick-and-mortar bookstores in my area. But each time we lose another one -- especially one which, in better times, was considered to have regular, healthy patronage -- it makes me wonder how long it will be until the neighborhood bookstore goes the way of the neighborhood blacksmith.

Like most Americans, I've bought my share of books online. But online book sales are most useful when you already know what you want to buy, or if you're willing to purchase a book based on what everyone else is reading. Real bookstores encourage you to browse, which is a completely different experience. You may spy something with an intriguing cover, pluck it off the shelf, lean against a wall or sit in an overstuffed chair and read a paragraph or two, and after further perusal the book may fizzle -- or it may explode in your mind like a firework or a hand grenade, and you have to have more. The books I've loved the most dearly were the ones I found while browsing.

The other thing bookstores provide is a gathering place to discuss what you've read. Some book groups meet in private homes, but others congregate in bookstores to sip a hot drink and talk about the latest shared novel. And again, I'm well aware of Goodreads; it has its place. But like Amazon, it is a social media site that works best when you have already made your selection of friends; it's not very good at helping you find new ones. Further, our society is in desperate need of shared spaces where we can talk to each other in person. I'm not talking about avoiding the panopticon our government has become (although that's fodder for a whole different discussion), but I believe our culture is unhealthily proceeding backwards from bloom to bud, shrinking back into ourselves to cocoon rather than reaching out to connect. It is what allows us to scream at each other online, when we would never do that in person; it is also what allows us to ignore people we don't already know, because we never let ourselves see them.

About the only place now where you can get the pleasure of discussing or browsing books in a comfortable public location is at the library -- but this institution, too, is at the mercy of financial pressures in the form of tax cuts. And as local libraries cull their less-popular texts and cut their costs by laying off librarians, I wonder -- what is our society going to look like a few years from now? Will physical libraries and bookstores be dead, banished to the online world? Will people cease to value real books over the convenience of e-texts? Will the desire itself to read for pleasure slowly fade, drowned out by other forms of entertainment? I hope not. But if the future of reading and sharing is to be dictated by the recent past, it will be dark and have a hand-lettered sign hung on it, reading "Thank you for your patronage."

Unless, of course, we choose to do something about it.

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