I don’t like bookstores. As both a writer and avid reader, people expect me to love bookstores. And I did, years ago. But the older I got, the more disenchanted I became.
I don’t like Barnes & Noble and I don’t like Books-A-Million. I don’t even like cozy (i.e., cramped) independent bookstores. That’s because if I wanted to read a book from a Big 5 publisher, I could find it at a library. And if I wanted to read a book from a small press, I could buy it directly from the press without having to go through a middleman. Because, you know, the internet exists.
Libraries have existed for millennia. The internet has existed for a few decades. Both are wonderful things that I couldn’t imagine living without. Libraries provide free books and other media to the public, and the internet is home to pretty much every form of media you can imagine. It’s the ancient and the modern working together to give you unbridled access to the extant corpus of our species’ collective knowledge and creative output. It’s fucking beautiful.
But you know what isn’t beautiful? Bookstores. They’re obsolete compared to the internet, and they take the wholesome simplicity of the public library and make it needlessly mercantile. If you want to properly enjoy a bookstore, you need money. And I’m a cheap bastard, so I don’t like that. But it’s about more than just money. There’s also the image factor.
Every bookstore makes a deliberate effort to feel like a bookstore. I don’t need to explain it. You know exactly what I mean. They’re the kinds of places where people go to feel like readers, to seem “well-read” and “bookish” in public. Bookstores are also “safer” and “cleaner” than libraries, which, translated into English, roughly means “contain few to no homeless people.” In short, if you prefer bookstores to libraries, you’re a heartless, soulless monster who despises the homeless.
But do bookstores sell books you wouldn’t otherwise find in libraries? Sometimes. Most of the time, though, independent and big-name bookstores both sell the same Big 5 titles with a smattering of “local author” and “local interest” titles. If you’re looking for a specific book from a specific indie press, good luck finding it at your local indie bookstore.
I live in a modestly-sized college town, one with almost a dozen independent bookstores. Once, back when I still frequented bookstores, I was looking for a novel published by an independent press based in Idaho. Because I live in Nebraska, most small press books in my local bookstores tend to come from Nebraskan presses. So, unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find the novel I wanted. I could have asked one of the stores to special order it for me, but what would have been the point? It was easier for me to get in touch with the press and order it through them. And that’s what I did—I emailed them and paid for the book through Pay-Pal. But wait, there’s more! Because they were a small press who played by their own rules, they added a personal touch to my order, throwing in a second novel and a poetry chapbook for free. Would a bookstore have given me two books gratis? Of course not.
And don’t even get me started on bookstores that offer coffee and/or food. You just know some absentminded customer is going to forget their half-syrup oat milk latte in the poetry section for another absentminded customer to knock onto the floor or onto the collected verse of Conrad Aiken. And if a bookstore sells pastries, paninis, or any other form of solid matter you can shove in your mouth for sustenance, that’s a whole other universe of problems.
Back when I still trusted indie bookstores, I had a traumatizing experience involving Saul Bellow and a half-eaten piece of avocado toast. The bookstore where this took place (which I shall refrain from naming) was the kind of place that sold about as much coffee, bagels, and sandwiches as they did books. But I wasn’t there for coffee, bagels, or sandwiches. I was just an innocent customer in the mood for some Saul Bellow. This store had absurdly high shelves, so I had to reach up blindly toward the “B”s in order to find the books I was interested in. And what met my fingertips? Was it the spine of Herzog? No! It was the oily, tepid remains of a stranger’s avocado toast! I was so disgusted I vowed to never set foot in another bookstore.
If this makes me an apostate, then so be it. I’ve been burned by bookstores far too often. Libraries are one of the few unequivocally good things to come from my tax dollars, and unlike yuppies at bookstores, the homeless people who nap and read newspapers at the library pick up after themselves and have never tried to ensnare me in conversations about how much they love Virginia Woolf. And on the internet, there are no strangers to physically share space with.
If you’re the kind of person who cares about “ambience” and “atmosphere” when it comes to finding books to read, then go ahead, imprison yourself within the mocha-scented hell that is the modern American bookstore. Waste your money. Forget your coffee there while you’re at it. Spend more time browsing through trinkets and bookmarks than actually browsing the new releases. That just means there’ll be more library for me.
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