The Spiral from Manayunk to Big Stone Gap
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
~ T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
As I probed the byways of the Internet this month, learning about books and bookstores in the age of Amazon and “box stores” and e-books (oh my), I became increasingly curious about my own landscape. My friends in Norway (and a couple here) have become used to hearing me grouse about my own neighborhood lacking a bookshop; but how fresh was my knowledge of the northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods?
The Manayunk neighborhood lies a short distance from me – easy biking distance and about 10 minutes’ drive, if the local fire station’s truck isn’t backing in or out. Having recovered from an assault of über-trendiness in the 1990s, then the recession that sent perhaps half of what remained of that phase packing, it has begun to settle into the best of the survivors and new, more stable shops unlikely to insist that I always wanted a $200 chartreuse incense holder that doubles as a hat rack.
But apart from some Sunday brunches, I haven’t spent much time in Manayunk since more than two years ago, when a friend worked there. And my significant memory at the time – in the nadir of the recession, amid going-out-of-business sales – was that it had never acquired any bookstores. This came up on one of my last wanderings: a visitor asked where one might be and, appalled that there wasn’t one, voiced my own feeling that the neighborhood had enough bars and could look to diversify. (The same can be said of much of Philadelphia.)
Shortly after this episode, Manayunk welcomed The Spiral Bookcase. I spotted it as I drove under the elevated rails of the SEPTA line to the neighborhood. This month, as I checked out local bookstores for National Book Month, I paid an Internet visit to the store’s site and, lo and behold, found another little bookstore. Spiral Bookcase was having a reading and signing of a new book titled The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, by Wendy Welch, and the review absolutely glowed off the Web page.
The Ghost of Bookstores Past
At the same time I was reading about the “fate” of independent booksellers, including one item by Farhad Manjoo, tech writer for Slate. I have a difficult relationship with Manjoo: I might appreciate his arguments, but his delivery of them actually managed to get me to “unlike” his Facebook page, which I haven’t even done for my friend’s “If I Don’t Drink Coffee, I Get a Headache” page that I never visit.
In December 2011, Manjoo brought his allergy to comfortable furniture and diverse literary tastes to bear on the bookselling world in an article titled “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller.” The piece displays him at his worst: universalist (“bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience” – to whom? are all consumer experiences alike?), haranguing, and weakly reasoned. Two assertions reminded me of why I removed Manjoo from my online social sphere:
Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?
Amazon tells me (1) what its algorithms produced from this purchase and others (“because you wanted a Swedish mystery and two years ago bought a Norwegian one, here are 12 more Scandinavian mysteries”; hence, Camilla Läckberg); and (2) what others have bought (“customers who bought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also bought KitchenAid® appliances and books on tattoos”).
That doesn’t say a thing about my reading or buying habits. And let’s keep it that way. TMI.
This is the “customers are drones” strain of marketing, which assumes it can determine the whole of customers’ desires by what they did before and what others do. Setting aside the myriad reasons I might not really care about Scandinavian mysteries, if I am interested, I’ll want to read a bit before plunking down for another book. And this leads me to the other Manjoo assertion:
Amazon and Barnes & Noble let you sample the first chapter of every digital title they carry.
First, note that this is “every digital title.” Not everything I want to buy is in digital form. But if it is, when they do offer such samples – or the “look inside” sample Amazon uses – the first chapter is often the Preface or the Acknowledgments.
I don’t buy books to find out whom the author thanked. (It’s a shame, though. I’m cited in a whole bunch for copy editing. Imagine the sales if everyone wanted to know the author thanked me.)
Exit Manjoo. I got off my computer, and my rear end, and went down to the Spiral Bookcase with Prufrock ringing in my ears, to check out this book on a topic Amazon couldn’t know was of interest to me – and that was (gasp!) recommended by my local bookseller.
Spirals Outward and Inward
As soon as I arrived, I felt I’d found a “bookstore home,” which I have lacked for some time. The store’s owner, Ann Tetreault, showed the enthusiasm of a true reader who had found a soul sister in the Little Bookstore‘s author. This emotion, book lovers recognize instantly. I leafed through to a bit of actual text, sampled a couple sentences, and understood what had Ann excited.
I was going to like this writer. I liked the way she talked.
I also liked Ann. She encouraged me to browse her well-organized selection of a few new, many gently used, and a number of rare books, among which I found many titles to interest me on a future visit. Her variety impressed me, and like the others around me, I started opening volumes and sampling – which is a rather important component of buying and selling. (I don’t usually just grab recommended clothing, either. I like to try it on first. That’s how I discovered that this new style where the back of your skirt looks like someone randomly took a scissors to it is a mistake on certain figures, if not generally.)
The reading and signing followed a week later, by which time I’d begun to get acquainted with this other little bookstore in Big Stone Gap, Virginia (population around 5,500). Appalachia-born ethnographer and storyteller Wendy and her husband, Scotland-born musician Jack Beck, put their dream of opening a used bookshop into action at the start of the recession, in small-town western Virginia – and didn’t just live to write about it. Their Tales of the Lonesome Pine Book Store has grown to a community center, even as they have woven themselves, and have been woven into, the fabric of this town.
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap isn’t a management guide for bookstores – though it offers insights into the bookseller’s life – or a catalog of volumes that have come in and out. The books, the store, Wendy and Jack, their pets, their friends, their random and regular customers, and even their occasional skirmishers bring community alive in the book’s pages, even as it unfolded at Lonesome Pine. And the group of us at Spiral Bookcase who gathered to meet the author and hear more stories and adventures over cookies and tea – with the shop cat, Amelia, anchoring first one lap, then another – chuckled and shared as if we had known each other a long time, comfortably seated around a table in a room shelved with books.
Other book signings I’ve attended, even one held by a friend, have arrayed the “audience” proscenium-style in chairs while the author (sometimes uncomfortably) held the hierarchical spotlight. Ann’s reading room, like much of what contemporary dance and other arts increasingly seek to do, draws everyone into the conversation. We’re here because we love to meet books; we’re curious about them. Why not be curious about each other, too?
What these little bookstores get is that customers and community don’t exist in separate spheres. The strongest customers for any establishment feel a relationship to it and will support it in bad times as well as good. And the raison d’être for running your own business is to gain a measure of fulfillment, not just profit, from doing it.
Otherwise, you might as well work for someone else, where you can earn the money – sometimes, greater money – without the same investment of time, finances, and emotions.
To Wendy and Jack, as to Ann and her life and bookstore partner Adam, the shop is not just about making a living; it’s about living, and living fully. In a different community, Ann involves herself in the culture of the neighborhood, engages with the businesses around her, and brings people together who otherwise slip by each other in what can be a fast-paced, somewhat isolating urban lifestyle.
Instead of hand-wringing over the future of bookstores or insisting upon the model for how to sell books (everywhere! all the time! all types!), we can appreciate the seed of what brings people together: communication of memories, encounters, imaginings, concepts, visions, all through the written medium. Books excel at this; they don’t have SEO engines yapping at them about their keywords or meta descriptions. They allow us to engage in a steadier, fuller encounter.
But the booksellers who nurture this seed further into growth by bringing the readers together, with each other and with the creators and with the lives on the street around them – ah, they are special indeed. And Spiral Bookcase takes it a step further by living up to its name, bringing us along the spiral to meet another, who introduces another, who introduces another….
Now, that might even be called genius in this day and age.
ADDENDUM: As an Amazon Associate, I usually link to book titles I cite in my blog. My not doing so here is to encourage you, too, to get out to find your local bookstore if you are interested in this title. I suggest this as much for you as for the booksellers; the journey of a thousand miles may even start on the Internet sometimes, but those steps require turning off the computer and getting out the door.
Variety is the spice of life, and there’s room for all of us.