I never thought I’d feel grateful for Barnes & Noble Booksellers. When they slowly and systematically dug the graves of small chains like Shakespeare & Co., small stores like Endicott Books on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and countless other bookstores across the nation, I was pissed. I’m not a shopper, but I always loved browsing the aisles and striking up conversations with knowledgable book sellers and customers.
As the digital world continues its expansion, like a media cancer, it seems possible that the behemoth may someday join its prior victims. Music, movies, books, magazines, newspapers have all felt the hit of this wireless world.
Hearing the news that Barnes & Noble’s only real rival, Border’s Bookstore, was going under I realized that what I used to jokingly refer to as, “the only game in town,” is now “the last bookstore standing.”
I remember, early on in the first days of the Bookstore Revolution, going to the Barnes & Noble at 81st & Broadway with a list of current titles. The young sales clerk was not only unhelpful, he was borderline ignorant. His fruitless efforts to locate ANY of the books on my list tapped into the silent rage that had begun bubbling when my favorite little bookstore, Endicott Booksellers, went under.
[I will digress for a moment to recount this bookstore gem, Endicott Booksellers. It occupied the same street number as the 81st Street B&N but was on Columbus Avenue. The wooden floors creaked, the winding staircase to the cellar was narrow & a bit treacherous and the aroma was an ancient mixture of dust, books and breath from the countless humans who treaded their boards. It was magical every time I went inside, like I was entering a portal to another time when books reigned and the people who sold them knew them, understood them and loved them.]
Back to the day that Barnes & Noble had nothing on my list…
In a moment of frustration I barked at the clerk, “If you’re going to be the ONLY game in town, you really OUGHT to have EVERYTHING!” His delayed response was that they were not the only game in town. I huffed back, “Well, I guess you must have missed that meeting because you ARE.” Following a moment of awkward silence (from his end) as he blinked not knowing what else to say, I’m sure I sighed or something connected to breath and sound before leaving the store without any of my books. I walked right over to the Used & Rare bookstore down on Amsterdam Avenue a few blocks away (I think it was called, Gryffin or Gryphon Books) to let off my pent up literary steam. I knew they wouldn’t have the books on my list but I would leave with something to remind me of better book days; and I did.
I walked home with myriad emotions chomping at the bit to be released. Change was in the air and I was resistant. I didn’t want to imagine a world without Mom & Pop Book Shops and knowledgable clerks who knew their way around the evolving literary maze. I didn’t want ill-informed employees with confused looks on their faces, fearful of having to explore the stacks. I wanted to be the dumbest person in the room!
Now that era which seems like yesterday is an anachronism. Change has been sweeping our world at such a competitive rate that I no longer feel the intense tug of resistance when it happens; I often barely notice it happening at all.
Today, however, when I was in our local Barnes & Noble in Bucks County, PA, far from 81st & Broadway, I felt nostalgic. I was not nostalgic for the scent of dusty books that once haunted my 20th Century sensibilities, rather I was beginning to miss Barnes & Noble and I was standing right in one! It was a knowledge that one day the bookstore experience will become completely virtual and the sensory experience of book shopping will become a memory. The clerks in our local branch are extremely bright and know exactly what you want even before you get all the words out. Not all of the salespeople are like that but enough of them are that they have restored my faith in The Big Game.
All of this said, I recently added Nook & Kindle Apps to my iPad. I downloaded my first book and am actually really excited to get reading on it! My hard copy version of “The Fiery Cross” (the 5th book in the Outlander Series) was procured when my husband worked in the book business, so I didn’t feel guilty about double-paying since it was free. The words in the actual tome are so tiny and the book, nearly 1000 pages, is not so portable. My 40-something eyes are sure to appreciate the new format and my 20-something self is reconciled to this new world.
So, where am I now? I still love browsing books first-hand. I love selecting my next book by how it feels in my hands. I love being in the community of readers and seekers. I love bookstores! If Barnes & Noble is the only game in town and the last store standing, I’ll take it! I’m grateful to live in a time when bookstores are more than a concept or a memory, but still have value in the brick and mortar world. I am also grateful for the digital choices that will shape the paradigm for the next generation of readers. Perhaps it will reveal gifts yet undiscovered as it inspires a love of reading. That is the point after all.
My mom always told me that if you were reading a book, you always had something to talk about. My father collected thousands of beautiful antiquarian books which now have been dispersed to other collectors and many to a library in his name. My image of home is one with shelves lined with books. My husband and I were talking about clearing some of our clutter and the topic turned to our books, many of which are classics that we always said we’d save for our children. Our children, however, will likely not read books the way we did. But, I told him, “We are raising the last generation of kids who when they look back on their childhood home will remember it with books!” More than just having a book to talk about, it looks like the future of books is a topic worth exploring in itself.
What does all of this have to do with yoga? Maybe not so much regarding the physical asana practice, but it is definitely relevant to dealing with issues of change and being present. Oh, and not forgetting to breathe! I could have used a little more of that when I barked at the clerk on 81st Street. If I had paused and taken the moment to see the big picture, my breath, rather than expressing exasperation, could have informed that moment in a very different way.
To all of my literary-minded friends (high, medium & low-brow ALL), Support Your Local Author in any medium!
Happy Reading & Breathing!
ADDENDUM to 20th CENTURY READER
I just wrote a piece about the path of books and booksellers in the digital world. It was emotionally inspired, beginning with frustration and becoming acceptance. (I can’t say it ended with acceptance since I have not yet reached the end of this journey; suffice it say, I am in acceptance at this moment.)
Last night I delved into my Nook book of The Fiery Cross, enlarging the print to accomodate my aging eyeballs. I had to re-read the first few “pages” several times because I was so distracted by the fact that I was reading a book on my iPad that I wasn’t taking anything in! I smiled several times at the novelty of it all and at my former narrow field of vision regarding the future of books.
The nighttime light feature allowed me to darken the background while lightening the type, making for an easy & enjoyable read. I no longer have to worry about keeping my husband awake by keeping my bedside light on since this lovely lighting is subtle and unobtrusive.
The only thing I sort of miss about reading electronically is my method of saving my place. Since I lived in NYC and used to ride the subway daily, I began using a paper clip to save my space. It allowed me to be specific about where I ended, without feeling pressured to finish a chapter or section before reaching my station stop. Admittedly, it’s an insignificant sacrifice.
Count me a 21st Century Reader!