The Last Word : Requiem for a bookstore
A storefront darkened by the empty space behind it shows a blank face to the busy street; its neighbors on either side garish with summer displays, like minstrels at a wake. The jolly welcome sign gone, no welcome here. A major loss in a small town. The loss of our small independent bookstore.
Now, Sun Porch hadn't been around all that long - nothing like the 60 years or more of some of our businesses, or even the stable run of a dozen years by some of the newcomers to the street. Just when it had become established, a reliable destination for book seekers, Sun Porch suffered an unfortunate crisis when the expected move into a new, larger, space was thwarted by the builder's - how should I put this gently - screw-up. The loss of a season in a seasonal community is a terminal event to a business. Even though this loss may not exactly have been the ultimate cause of death, it certainly contributed to it. That and the delicate balance between enough stock and limited room, offering a welcoming retreat for bibliophiles and maintaining a healthy bottom line. A transient and fickle public. Ineluctable market forces. A quick check of the Internet and a host of blogs and online articles pop up decrying the loss of yet another independent bookstore; even some of the greats, including Boston's famous Avenue Victor Hugo, have fallen. The reasons are legion. The answers, nil. Well, not quite nil. The obvious culprits are named like foregone conclusions.
It is a lament sung loud and often, frequently by the very people who, in the dark of night, sequestered at home with only a computer as witness, order from the big online book suppliers. I don't say bookstores, because, of course, they aren't. They are computer-accessed distribution centers that have everything and get it to you in three days. Okay, I confess, I've used them. And they are pretty terrific. No physical bookstore can contain every book. Physics and economics laws must be obeyed. Like some magical cave, the virtual bookstore provides whatever the customer demands.
But that doesn't make anyone feel better about the loss of yet another independent bookstore. As I've said in this column before, it is the most wonderful thing to be advised, to have one's tastes recognized and provided for. There is a little advice from those on-line purveyors: People who bought xyz also liked abc. Yeah, so what? Does that even make sense? Can an accident of purchasing drive referrals? What if I buy Anita Shreve and my husband, using my account, buys nothing but books on Scottish locomotives? Does the online referral come up with: People who bought "Fortune's Rocks" also bought "The History of Trains in Scotland?" Could be.
And if online isn't enough, there are those big-box emporiums. Acres of books, relieved only by random chairs to sit in to rest from one's pursuit, because sure-shootin' you ain't gonna find a sales person - pierced, tattooed, or otherwise - who knows the stock from one section to another. The blank stare of the staff person when you asked a question must be learned in their training sessions. Uh, I'll have to look it up. Heaven forfend if you need a suggestion. The books are laid out on tables like a buffet, and it's help yourself.
We've begun to hear this song sung like the chorus from Les Miz as we slowly approach the barricades: Buy local. We have control over our purchasing power. To buy produce from local farms, our corn flakes from the multi-generational family grocery store, and sandpaper from our indigenous hardware store, is to strengthen ourselves. Yes, it may cost a few pennies more to do so, but in the end we won't have to look back with regret over the loss of yet another business, relegating it to the annals of "do you remember?" when playing the I've-been-here-longer-than-you one-upsmanship game we are all so fond of around here.
The good news is that, having no big-box book emporium here, we are indeed fortunate to have two other independent bookstores close at hand, and we must treasure them. We can't depend upon the traveler stopping in to browse to keep them afloat. We must buy local. Buy your books where you live.
To avoid the chain stores, despite their purported economics, ease of use and Brobdingnagian attractiveness, is purity itself; indeed, it will save us in the end.
Requiem in pax Sun Porch.