You’ve probably heard that bookstores are on the verge of going the way of the dodo. Someday we’ll be telling our grandkids about them. You see, there were these places that had shelves filled with books. And the books were made out of paper… The other day I was at a thrift shop with my kids. They simply could not get over the existence of typewriters. How do those keys work exactly? And what’s with the ribbon? Also they were enamored by the dialing phones. So, wait, you have to stick your finger in the hole and drag it all the way around? Geez. That would suck if your phone number had a bunch of 9s and 0s.
My husband and I felt like dinosaurs.
Yes, it’s true, children, bookstores used to be all the rage. And the bigger the store the better. When I lived in Memphis in the early ’90’s there were three warehoused-sized bookstores within a two-mile radius. That doesn’t count the local bookstore the chains were copying, the one I worked at when I was in grad school, Davis Kidd. (Now it’s called Booksellers at Laurelwood.) The first time I walked into that place I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The. Biggest. Bookstore. I. Had. Ever. Seen. 100,000 books. Comfy chairs. Cool artsy posters on the wall. It was The place to hang out.
All the workers were hip and brilliant and quirky, each one an expert in his or her area, so the history alcove was manned by a PhD student in history. And the math section was shelved by a math genius. The religion and philosophy guy gave me a tour on my first day of work. He waved his arm at the bibles then walked me around the alcove. Religious texts, world religions, philosophy, new age, satanic beliefs. “The bible thumpers end up back to back with the atheists,” he pointed out with a smirk. “And over here are the books on ESP. Funny, no one ever asks where this section is…” I cracked up and he stared at me like I was a flake. I was working on my MFA in poetry at the time so I was kind of a flake. Come to think of it, maybe I still am.
The section I was in charge of was romance. Since I only worked part-time, it was a good genre for me. Not much upkeep except making sure the rows of bodice rippers stayed in alphabetical order. The other clerks knew I hated romance novels and took every opportunity to mock me and my charges. One time the accomplished literary fiction guy led a customer my way. “She wants a recommendation, Jody,” he said, “from your romance section. I told her you were a total fan.”
I ignored that and asked the customer in my most polite, salesperson tone: “Would you like a book about a beautiful woman and a man who’s really handsome but kind of mean to her and they have all sorts of issues and then they realize they really love each other?”
“Oh, yes!” said the woman. “That sounds like a good one.”
With all the smart-aleck clerks looking on, I waved my hand at the entire romance section. “There it is,” I said. They probably should’ve fired me for that. In addition to being kind of flaky, I was snarky back then too.
Davis Kidd had an information desk in the middle of the store. We got the strangest questions at that desk:
“What’s a good place to eat Mexican food?”
“Um, I don’t know. But I’ll show you our selection of Mexican cookbooks.”
Or “Where can I buy white gloves?”
“Um.” I tried to show the customer the fashion and style books but she waved me off. No, she didn’t want a book about gloves, she wanted to know where to buy actual white gloves.
“Ma’am,” I said, “I have no idea. Maybe Macys?”
She glared at me then pointed at the sign over the desk. “That says information,” she said.
“Information for the store,” I told her. “Not information about life in general.”
I probably should’ve gotten fired for that too.
We weren’t allowed to read while we were on the clock. I guess that goes without saying. But sometimes I snuck away and hid in an alcove and read anyway. The fiction guy usually caught me but he was always nice about it. I bought tons of books the couple of years I worked at Davis Kidd. Many of them line the shelves in our house today, all alphabetized, of course, and by genre, just like in the store. My family used to tease me about that, but hey! It makes it easier to find what you’re looking for.
I don’t want bookstores to go away. I heard the author Ann Patchett talking on NPR a few weeks ago about Parnassus, the bookstore she just opened in Nashville. The big question was why she was taking such a risk—opening a bookstore, in this economy, when people aren’t even sure that books are going to be around much longer. Ann said while it’s true that the big bookstore model might not work anymore, she’s betting that there is still a market for smaller ones. Maybe things had gone a little over the top with cafés and selling non-book stuff like candles and expensive pens and designer purses.
She’s probably right. And I hope she’s right about her new bookstore. Because shouldn’t there still be a place where people who love to read can browse alongside other people who love to read? Where you can ask for information about whatever thoughts pop into your head? And where an old woman picking out a new bible has to brush past a biker flipping through a copy of The Anarchists Cookbook?