I'm hopping mad.
Saturday morning, I went to our local independent bookstore to pick up a birthday gift. I had noticed in recent months that the shelves were looking a little bare, but when I had asked about this, I'd been told that the store was 'between shipments' or 'doing inventory.'
On this visit, the pickings were sparse indeed. As the cashier wrapped the book I'd purchased, I fixed her with my best gimlet gaze and said, "The shelves look bare. Should I be worried?" She hesitated, then replied, "Yes. The store will close in the fall."
I was devastated; this has happened to me before. When we lived in Manhattan, my beloved Shakespeare & Co. eventually found it could not compete with the volume and tactics of Barnes & Noble and closed its doors forever. When I lived in San Francisco, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books was a favorite hangout; I recently read that it is also folding.
Why is a local, independent bookstore important to me? For the same reason I buy the bulk of our food from local farmers whenever possible. I value the human connection. I like supporting people who are intimately involved in the work that they do, that have specialized knowledge born of hands-on experience. I contrast the experience of buying a book from someone with whom I can trade recommendations and reviews with the typical Borders/B&N experience vividly depicted by Desmond at the Rag and Bone Shop in this post. (Follow the link; it's a great story.)
Our town is charming. Main Street is lined with shops selling antiques, art, hiking gear, and clothing to a vibrant tourist trade. It also features a great pizza place, a tolerable Chinese take-out restaurant, and a pretty good French bistro, among other restaurants. But the two places I patronize most frequently are The Country Goose, an eclectic gift shop run by a quirky Welsh woman who happens to have a terrific talent for making up gift baskets; and Merritt Bookstore.
I know that I might sound like a snob; be that as it may, because it's really not about that. It's about getting what I want as a consumer. When I visit Lenore at The Goose, she asks about my kids; I ask about her dog. She knows my taste and shows me new things that will fit my gift-buying needs. Her service is impeccable; it has to be, because her business lives and dies by it. It's the same thing at Merritt. I know if I ask the manager about the latest Barry Underwood or Umberto Eco, she'll have interesting things to say, and she'll give me her honest opinion.
The last Harry Potter party in our town was fantastic. Our kids and lots of their friends dressed up and visited different shops on Main Street that had HP-inspired activities going on. Near midnight, everyone gathered at Merritt, drank punch and ate cookies, and visited while waiting for the magic moment when the boxes could be opened.
Once the clock struck twelve, everyone got his or her copy without the screaming and trampling I've read about at larger, less personal stores. After that, about forty of us--kids of all ages--gathered in the garden behind the bookstore, and staff members took turns reading the first chapter aloud. It was an enchanted evening, pardon the pun, and my kids can't wait for the next one occurring just a few weeks.
One of the reasons I hope never to move away is that we have virtually none of the faceless strip mall sprawl that makes so much of American suburbia look alike: the Applebee's next to the Wal-Mart next to the McDonald's next to the Old Navy. Our town is unique and aesthetically pleasing, and I want to do everything I can to help it stay that way. That means voting with my dollar.
Merritt has two other branches that have thrived for many years; my guess is that this is because they are farther up the Hudson, thus farther from the stiff competition provided by big box stores. I also am betting that Amazon is a player in our bookstore's demise.
I confess that I have used Amazon quite a bit in the past. It's hard beat the convenience, and the prices are pretty great if you conveniently forget about the shipping costs. I've even had their advertising widgets on this blog since nearly the beginning, mainly because I wanted a way to display what I'm currently reading. I'll admit, though, that I thought it wouldn't be a terrible thing if those widgets earned me a little cash.
Well, they're gone now. I've discovered Library Thing. I spent a few leisurely hours this afternoon cataloguing a portion of our large collection. It was like looking through an old yearbook, revisiting these old friends that are my favorite books, one by one. Now they'll appear randomly on my sidebar. (If you happen to click on them, you'll be taken to Amazon's site, but any cash generated thereby will go to support Library Thing, which seems like a really cool service so far. But if you see something intriguing, call your local store instead!)
I'm cutting myself off from Amazon from this day forward. For the next few months, when I need books, I can order them online on Merritt's website and save myself the shipping by picking them up at the store downtown. I know I have some local readers; please find it in your heart to do the same! And spread the word; perhaps we can convince the folks at Merritt that they are very much needed and wanted after all.