Monday, July 1, 2013

The Ever Vanishing Book Store: Part I The Stars and Stripes

I am somewhat spoiled when it comes to bookstores. After all, I live in Portland, OR which is home to Powell's Books. I have mixed feelings about Powell's. It's a model of supply. It's very competitive on prices and since we are in Oregon, there is no sales tax. I tend to get lost in Powell's, and that's perhaps the point. I know, for certainty, that there are corners and nooks of the massive bookstores that I have never seen. I secretly suspect that there may even be a floor I haven't seen. I've never fully understood how the place is organized. The real truth of my mixed feelings is simply this, the place is too big and filled up with way too many people. I only go to Powell's very late at night simply to avoid the other patrons. There is nothing that I hate more than being molested in the bookstore.

I felt much the same way when I lived in Denver. I loved going to the Tattered Cover. I would venture to Cherry Creek specifically to hang out at the Tattered Cover. This place, like Powell's, massive, a model of supply and overrun with customers. Even when the bookstore moved to the Lowenstein Theater on East Colfax, I was still a fan.

Both aforementioned bookstores still exist, and they are still independent. Good for those folks in Portland and Denver. I suppose everyone else can look to Barnes and Noble.

I have no beef with Barnes and Noble. Please know this. I worked at the Barnes and Noble when I lived in Tucson during that terrible year of 2005. Barnes and Noble is efficient, easy to navigate and pleasant to be in. Downside, really, all Barnes and Noble are alike and the selection is best suited for profit rather than diversity.

But in the recesses of my memory I know dozens, if not hundreds of bookstores all over the world. They were small affairs too. They were the mom and pops shops. They were used shops specializing in one thing or another. They were new shops that occupied spaces in public places and they may all well be franchised coffeehouses now. This is not the rambling of an old man. I feel like there used to be more bookstores than there are now. And with a wider array of booksellers, there was a wider variety of books available.

I feel like the big box stores, Barnes and Noble or Border's Books came and took the market away from the mom and pops shops. And then Internet and Amazon took the show from the box stores. And where does that leave us now?

I love Amazon. The last few books I bought were off Amazon. I see people reading from the Kindle everywhere these days. I think it's brilliant. I really do. But—

Sometimes it's the experience of wandering into a bookshop that I miss. I miss the selection that each shop sold because that, in a way, helped you to choose the book you'd walk away with. The small shops were seldom overwhelming, seldom packed with people. The small shops could be well lit with the natural light from windows. Tungsten versus fluorescent will be a debate for a different day.

In the months after the war, way back in 1991 and 1992, I wandered through shelves of The Stars and Stripes Bookstore. It was close to where I worked on Katterbach Kaserne. It was on the side of the main road through the base and the railroad tracks were behind it. I feel like I used to stop off at The Stars and Stripes after lunch before returning to work. In those days I read John Steinbeck. In those days I wanted nothing more than to be a botanist. Many of the books I purchased at the time were horticultural books. I don't remember much about the bookstore other than how it made me feel: hopeful for the future, alone in the present and somehow enriched. The war was over, my inner conflict had not begun and there were more books in that small space than I would ever be able to read.

Admittedly, I did not see this commercial until today. But, boy, is it funny:

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