I know that by railing against the possible demise of bookstores as they now exist I am merely showing how old and out of it I am. But I don’t care. Walking into a bookstore has always been one of those moments that immediately lifts my heart and soul and brings a smile to my lips. There is an atmosphere in a store full of books, an atmosphere that implies adventures, knowledge, fun, friends and worlds beyond imagination.
Growing up eons ago, travel was not as common as it is nowadays. The parents in my neighborhood didn’t routinely get in a car or on a plane with their children and spend a week at an amusement park or a state park. We simply didn’t have that kind of money or leisure time. When your parents owned and staffed their own store, anytime you were away was time the store was closed and money was lost. So aside from Sunday afternoons and Christmas, there was no vacation time.
This meant that books were the vehicles I used to travel all over the universe without ever causing my father to miss a sale. Going to the library meant going to a place where you could borrow the world for a week at no cost. Going to a bookstore meant that you could buy the adventure and have it to read and reread forever.
I’ve been to Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com and a multitude of other online bookstores and I have to say that browsing online is simply not as much fun or as fascinating as browsing amidst row upon row of books, each carrying within it the possibility of learning something new, of traveling somewhere exotic, of escaping these mortal bonds and flying to the moon.
Losing the physical presence of a store where you can walk through shelves fill with topics you maybe never knew existed carries the risk that we will become a society in which we never leave our comfort zone because we never encounter anything outside of it.
I periodically respond to online surveys that ask some variation of this question, “Do you think the gathering of information about your personal interests and habits by online search engines and businesses so they can cater to your particular tastes is a good thing?” And I always answer no. Because I think that the more we are catered to in the small world most of us actually inhabit, the less likely we are to ever stretch beyond our boundaries to see what’s in the next aisle or over the next fence or past our visible horizon. We’ll simply never know what might be.
You can walk into a bookstore, of course, and go straight to the aisle with the subject matter that interests you and never look right or left. But most of us will find our eye caught by a book cover or a blurb and the next thing you know, we’re looking at a book on a topic we never imagined would interest us. We flip casually through the pages, read the cover’s back page, maybe read the inside cover and then put the book down. Or, every once in a while, pick it back up and think this looks like something to try.
After years of reading books borrowed from a library, I finally earned some of my own money at age 14 by working a summer job at a lilac stand on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The way it worked in our family was that any money you made until the day you moved out and into your own place was given directly to mom. It was considered your contribution to the household in which you lived. You got an allowance back from it as family finances that month allowed.
The first time mom and I went out together and she handed me some of the money I’d earned, I ran right to the book section of the department store we were in and inhaled the heady smell of paper, ink and binding. The very first thing I ever bought with the first money I ever made was a book. I still have it.
I hope I leave this earth before bookstores disappear. I don’t want to live in a world without them.