The story today in The New York Times about the birth –rather than the death– of an independent bookstore is cause for celebration. Novelist Ann Patchett, joining with much of Nashville’s reading community, has spurred the opening of Parnassus Books after the closing of the city’s Davis-Kidd bookstore last December. It was Nashville’s last, truly independent, non-university affiliated bookstore. The city’s Outloud Bookstore that focused on progressive and GLBT issues preceded Davis-Kidd in closure last year.
The Times article paints the dilemma in predictable terms: “…it’s sort of everybody against Amazon,” says Daniel Goldwin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. Of course, that’s only part of the problem. The Outloud store’s webpage cites the high cost of borrowing (those evil banks, again), unfair price advantages enjoyed by large retailers like Wal-Mart, the sales-tax advantage of out-of-state corporations and “the inability of congress to pass meaningful legislation that would support small businesses” among reasons for its demise.
What makes the closing of an independent book store a tragedy, not just for its owners but for its customers and readers (and authors) everywhere? The opportunity to browse, of course. Thumbing through books, seeing unknown books, hearing about books that might otherwise be missed not only encourages sales but expands the number of titles faithful readers would otherwise miss if they only followed what (little) was reviewed in the general press and recommended for them by Amazon. New and lesser-known, but equally worthy, writers go by the wayside as do the small, independent presses that publish them. Independent books stores provide for a more diverse, if smaller, selection; giving potential readers a chance to focus on books that might have otherwise been invisible. This is a good thing, not only for readers, but for writers, publishers and communities at large. To its credit, the Times also points out ways independents have sought to stay alive: negotiating new leases with sympathetic landlords, operating as co-ops, seeking partnerships with libraries and other institutions as well as raising money from its patrons.
I fondly recall a few visits to Shakespeare and Co. Booksellers in the unlikely location of Missoula, MT this summer. Hosting a modestly-sized but eclectic collection, it enticed me into buying a credit-limit busting (yes, I know I should have used cash) handful of titles I otherwise might not have seen: Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen from Red Lemonade , Francis Levy’s Seven Day in Rio from Two Dollar Radio, G. A. Bradshaw’s Elephants On the Edge from Yale University Press (independent books stores are a great resource for university presses) and others. There was poetry, local and international, that I could sample and graphic novels that hadn’t made the usual lists. Browsing Shakespeare was an education. Now I have Collected Works Bookstore & Coffee House in my new home of Santa Fe, providing the same sort of experience with a more regional slant, just as Small World Books, with it literary and mystery emphasis, did for us when we lived in Venice, CA. What great part of our lives would be missing if not for independent book sellers? Sadly, we occasionally find out. That’s why the opening of Parnassus, even if it’s nowhere near, is welcome news.–Cabbage Rabbit