3 min read

Bookstores, Books, and the Crumbling of America

Bookstores, Books, and the Crumbling of America
Photo by Norbert Tóth / Unsplash

Writer Louise Erdrich said this about bookstores:

“Marvelous people work at Birchbark Books. That’s why it’s still alive. Walking into a huge bookstore feels a bit like walking into Amazon.com. But walking into a small bookstore, you immediately feel the presence of the mind that has chosen the books on the shelves. You communicate intellectually with the buyer. Then, if you’re lucky, you meet another great reader in person—our manager, Susan White, ready with ideas for you. People need bookstores and need other readers. We need the intimate communication with others who love books. We don’t really think we do, because of the ease that the Internet has introduced, but we still need the physical world more than we know. Little bookstores are community services, not profitable business enterprises. Books are just too inexpensive online and there are too many of them, so a physical bookstore has to offer something different. Perhaps little bookstores will attain nonprofit status. Maybe one fine day the government will subsidize them, so they can thrive as nonprofit entities. Some very clever bookstore, probably not us, is going to manage to do that and become the paradigm for the rest.”

Erdrich said more about the loss of small bookstores:

“There’s something very wrong in our country—and not just in the book business. We now see what barely fettered capitalism looks like. We are killing the small and the intimate. We all feel it and we don’t know quite why everything is beginning to look the same. The central cores of large cities can still sustain interesting places. But all across our country we are intent on developing chain after chain with no character and employees who work for barely livable wages. We are losing our individuality. Killing the soul of our landscape. Yet we’re supposed to be the most individualistic of countries. I feel the sadness of it every time I go through cities like Fargo and Minneapolis and walk the wonderful old Main Streets and then go out to the edges and wander through acres of concrete boxes. Our country is starting to look like Legoland.”

She also said this about books in the same interview:

“As for the book as an object, it’s like bread. It is such a perfectly evolved piece of technology that it will be hard to top. A hardcover book is a beautiful and durable piece of work. The paperback—so low-tech and high-tech at the same time—is also a great piece of technology because you don’t mind passing it along. It is inexpensive. Even if you drop it in the bathtub, you haven’t really lost much. You can leave a paperback somewhere and buy a used one for the price of a loaf of bread. You can’t pass on an electronic reader, you can’t page back in the same way, you can’t write in it; you’ve lost the tactile sense of being able to fold it over, rip it up, feel its weight. I also like that you can throw books across the room, as people have done with mine. Plus, you don’t need a power source. The whole absence of touching and feeling a book would be a loss, though I think there are a number of readers who really only want the text, so they’ll adopt electronic books. Ultimately it’s just another form of publishing, so I’m not against it. I don’t feel that sense of alarm and threat that some writers seem to feel about e-books.”

Not so far in the distant past people interacted around favorite books and music. Perhaps in the library, or in a local record shop and bookstore. A sort of magic happens when a community of people rallies around a common interest. An interest rooted in a place, a local place.

I’m not sure the pseudo versions of connection through the internet and social media are going to cut it long term. We need more flesh and blood and life on life and small and intimate.

This is not an old guy pining for the good ole days. I hear an ache from Louise Erdrich of genuine human connection. America, like she says, is becoming “Legoland,” and bigger doesn’t mean better. Everything is getting bigger and faster, but our capacity for love and joy is diminishing. Efficiency over connections, project completion over relationships. Massive, over small and intimate.

Maybe Louise is right and we need more “non-profit” bookstores to stop the bleeding. We need those places on Main Street where we can connect around books, music, art, or updates on how the teenager is doing in school.

Besides, I never liked Legoland anyway.