A Real Book for Real Readers

I’m depressed that in Julie Bosman’s article in The New York Times on the perils of Barnes & Noble’s future, she had to remind her readers that an independent bookstore is what they saw in Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s “You’ve Got Mail.”  Have we become so indoctrinated by the Big Box mentality that we can’t even recall what a neighborhood bookstore looks like?  You know, the ones that Barnes & Noble has steadily driven out of business?

At the same time, one of the most popular recent blog pieces, appearing on Facebook walls everywhere, is “The 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World.”  Take a look– they’re stunning:


The day Borders went out of business I believed a little piece of sanity had returned to the world.  I know that’s churlish, and maybe even elitist.  But there was never anything elite about your local independent bookstore.  Those that remain are havens of intelligence, warmth and pleasure.  Places where you want to be.  Do you know Crawford Doyle on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan?  Or City Lights in San Francisco?  Or Elliott Bay in Seattle (even in their new, less wonderful space.)  Or Powell’s in Portland, OR?  Or Rizzoli on 57th Street?   These are destinations for browsing, thinking, dreaming.  Finding books you never knew existed, much less wanted.

I’m occasionally troubled that I have too many books.  Maybe 6,000+.  Tragically, eighty boxes of my books are in storage in Westchester County, NY.  I need to deal with those orphans. If there were Bookaholic Anonymous I would be a charter member.  I become like Mr. Toad in The Wind and the Willows, my eyes twirling, when I walk into a new unexplored bookstore.

Used bookstores are even better—independents taken to the next level.  For me they are small spots of heaven.  My local used bookshop here in San Francisco is Russian Hill Books, owned by the keen and charming Carol Spencer.  I cannot walk in without finding a book I can’t live without and currently have advised the staff to just say No anytime I want to make a purchase.  Happily, the shop also buys used books, selectively.  My strategy is to sell twenty and buy one.  Just yesterday I decided that Picasso was no longer part of my aesthetic, so packed up twelve large art books to cart down the hill and sell.  I have my eye on a fifteen volume lovely 1906 set of Thackeray.  I hope Vince or Ben say No.

Here in San Francisco we are blessed with many used and rare bookstores.  Another favorite is Forest Books in the Mission—still a fine bookstore but greatly diminished by the loss of Jason Espada, who in the evening would play classical guitar for hours.

And I would sit and listen for hours.  It was as close to a spiritual experience as one could get anywhere outside an 11th century French cathedral.  Forest Books’ owner, who shall remain nameless, should be lashed daily for letting Jason go.

Then there’s the Brattle Street Bookstore in Boston.  And the Strand in New York.

A year ago I discovered a delightful used bookstore in Chapel Hill where I found the 1897 two-volume first English edition of Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North, a book every teenage boy in America should read.  Forget about the Boy Scout’s “Be Prepared.”  Read Nansen’s narrative of his successful journey to the Arctic and truly understand what being prepared means, and why it’s important.  (Think of the folly of Scott in the Antarctic.)  And my copy has the long forgotten fountain pen inscription “From Henry M. Hunter.  Christmas. 1897.”  I wonder who the lucky recipient was.

So, how does any of this rant on physical books in real bookstores have anything to do with marketing?  It probably doesn’t.  The shift to ebooks has already happened.  Amazon is a marketing juggernaut.  Hell, when Walmart ranks as the top book brick-and-mortar retailer, you know some kind of intelligence nadir has been reached.  Sorry if that offends.

Of late interactive books have been on my mind.  I think they’re mostly pointless—experiences produced more for the novelty of the “experience” than for intellectual content.  Interactive children’s books are an exception.  They brilliantly open up worlds of wonder that can engage and captivate a (small) child.  But will that interactive experience lead to “real” reading?  Or only to more of a visually dominated culture, to more TV, more online games, more apps.

I don’t think it leads to wanting a fifteen-volume set of Thackeray.

A once in a lifetime experience—never again to be repeated—for millions of young readers around the globe was the sequential releases of the seven Harry Potter novels.  As the bookish father of three boys who literally waited with baited breath for each new volume to appear, it was an unsurpassed joy.  All my boys went to a summer camp on Lake Champlain in the Adirondacks and each summer of the latest Harry Potter release, a hundred Amazon parcels would arrive at Camp Dudley’s gate.  And a hundred boys would spend the rest of the day in their cabins reading the latest marvel from start to finish.  I think the camp had to give that day off from regular activities.

With my boys, the adventure of reading Harry Potter, among many others, led straight to the other-worldly world of Haruki Murakami, the delight of A Confederacy of Dunces, and with my middle son Sam, a devotion to Balzac.  My oldest son David has read The Lord of the Rings maybe…eleven times?  Adam my youngest just finished the new biography of Steve Jobs.  I hope never to see an interactive version of that!

Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, advises that if you want to be a writer, read everything, everywhere, all the time.  In bed at night, at the bus stop, waiting in line at the bank, of course in the toilet—everywhere.  Read everything, not just the greats.  Discover what bad writing looks like as well as great writing.  Read novels, biographies, science books, history (especially history,) poetry, and epics.

On his march across the known world, Alexander the Great slept with his copy of the Iliad, annotated by his tutor Aristotle, next to his pillow.  He never left home without it.

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  1. Ah, a wonderful post about bookstores from someone who knows the subject…..highly intelligent, and let’s hope that more and more people just understanding what is being said here.

  2. Thank you Bruce. I’m afraid I may have let all my personal biases shine forth! Both Borders and B&N have created opportunities for people to buy “real” books–though at the expense of independent book sellers. Amazon today has largely replaced the need for these mega-bookstores, giving (I hope) independents a possible chance of survival. I, too, resort to Amazon when I can’t find something locally, though I always try the local shops first. I even download to my Kindle books I absolutely have no need to own a physical copy (most business books date in about five minutes.) And I was harsh on interactive books, though I still believe they are a different, and lesser, experience than actually reading a book.
    So here’s to independent bookstores everywhere–and to the publishers who fill readers’ wants and desires.


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