This weekend our local Borders closed for good. A few weeks ago I had this essay published in a shorter form in our local York Sunday News. It is always nice to get to write for the home town paper and I tried to both lament the loss of the local Borders and celebrate the other locally-owned bookstores that remain in York County. So that it wasn’t a piece just about Hearts & Minds I sincerely gave a shout out to a few other stores in the region.
When a few local media stories included ill-informed comments like “now there are no bookstores in York” I was understandably irritated, but I toned down my righteous indignation. Ha. I thought you might like to see my effort to talk about ourselves in public.
The last line or two are important to me, too: weaning a generation of shoppers away from the glitz and glory (and uniformity) of the big box stores and their unreasonably huge, if predictable, inventories will take some doing. Many smaller indie stores are fantastic but funky. We can’t be everything to everybody. The indie experience may take some getting used to, not unlike experiencing the difference between a casual, eccentric, health food store and the florescently lit big box pharmacy chains, or the difference between a farmer’s market and the giant grocer. Long live the little guys in their odd little glory as an alternative to the mass markets. Except for the most pragmatic of buyers, shopping with us will certainly be more interesting and, we hope, finally, more enriching.
What a loaded question! As a local bookstore owner I have been asked many times this past month what I think about the closing of Borders, the national chain, and the local East York store, by folks who may think I am somehow glad; they were one of our chief competitors, after all. But I am a bookstore owner because I am a bookstore lover, and each member of our family has good memories of browsing Borders’ many shelves and we are truly sad to see them go. I recall sometimes feeling a bit sheepish as I studied their selections or as a friendly clerk would ask how our Dallastown business was faring or when a regular customer of ours would greet us with a hearty “What are you doing here?” And so we all were there, happy for the bookish conversation, the new covers, the hiss of the espresso machine. Of course we are sad.
Now they are gone and there are thousands of booksellers throughout the country who are unemployed. Acres of empty parking lots, hundreds of missing venues for authors to get their books into the marketplace, publishers themselves cutting back due to the loss of bookstore space to sell their new releases. In these hard times of civic contention and a hunger for serious answers to our cultural malaise, the loss of even one decent bookstore is a shame. The loss of hundreds is a tragedy. Books and bookstores are unspeakably valuable assets for a free society and the demise of so many is worse than just the inconvenience and loss of an entertaining venue that so many of us feel. We are now more impoverished.
And so, along with many others, we offer our lament, pained that a land such as ours cannot support those very businesses that invite thought, the investigation of ideas, learning, and that exquisite pleasure of being lost in a story. No, we who are called to the vocation of book-selling are not glad for the demise of Borders. We wish our local colleagues in the book business the very best. Some were true book lovers, themselves poets and writers and I hope they might somehow find a way to stay in the important world of books. Certainly, we need more cheerleaders these days for those lovely rectangles of paper and print.
Yet, for those who care to drive just a bit, there are bookstores to be found in our region. Our own shop has served customers from throughout the Mid-Atlantic for 30 years in our small town setting; we often apologize for our sketchy signage, cluttered feel, and mish-mashed fixtures, but those whose eyes are wide with the thrill of the discovery of new titles, a unique blend of topics, and vital, good authors, seem to not mind much. Book lovers are like that—indeed, one recent. popular on-line column opened with the AA like mantra: “Hello. My Name is Wendy and I am a Bookstore Addict.” I can’t tell you how many serious book buyers have told us that we are a threat to their budget (or their relationship with their spouse.) Interesting bookstores offer a setting and service that, in some ways, is significantly different than the rather cookie-cutter ethos and selection of the major chains.
Just this week a customer from out of town started to cry when she noticed a particular book and our selection of Bruce Cockburn CDs. (And, oh, was I proud tell her that I was working that very day on a manuscript I was doing a blurb for, a Biblical reflection on the work of the Canadian folk-rocker.) This sort of synchronicity is more common than you might suppose as we have curated our selection with care and a bit of eccentric passion, offering a curious blend of books on current events, cultural criticism, spirituality and memoir. When a person alive to the truest things of life sees titles that resonate, when she connects the dots between her deepest convictions and her daily life, well, it is often a very exiting moment. For instance, we currently have a display of seasonal cookbooks, titles about buying local produce and the relationship of religious faith and food, and it is fascinating how people respond. Books about real life matter!
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Throughout York County there are several great used bookstores (including one in Dallastown, making our village a two-bookstore town, not to mention the home of Pennsylvania’s best hot dog and the area’s best burrito!) There is a large religious chain bookstore in East York with a niche focused exclusively on conservative Protestants. There is the delightfully funky Readers CafÃ© in downtown Hanover. There is a new age shop in downtown York. There is even a small Bookland in South York, a hold-out from the local chain that served the region in the 80s and 90s. For typical beach books and bestsellers, Target and WalMart handle a handful. For what it is worth, our store is the largest and most diverse of any bookshop in the area, but all of these outlets combined offer plenty of opportunity for browsing and purchasing books old and new.
It isn’t easy in this era of faceless, on-line ordering, but we believe that locally-owned and passionately bookish independent bookstores can still thrive. So do shed a tear about the loss of the big-box Borders. But don’t give up on bookstores, especially indie places that each have their owner’s mark, selected by lights different than bestseller lists or market fads. For a real find, be prepared to linger, to browse, to dig. You will find treasures on the shelves of locally-owned indies and you will find staff who sincerely want to help you in your reading life. Indie booksellers took up this strange literary life for a reason: we love books and we love people and we are convinced that reading matters. We hope that York Countians agree.
We are as committed to the printed page as anyone around, and read widely. Our store is stronger on nonfiction than on popular novels and poetry and we long ago realized that we needn’t fill our limited shelf space with standards that are widely available elsewhere. (Still, the very first book we sold, the day we opened in November 1982, was the extraordinarily rich novel by Victor Hugo, a complex story called Les Miserables. This was years before the Broadway musical made Les Mis a household word, and we saw this as a good sign, taking comfort that such readers would find themselves driving down Route 74 to our homey spot.) Still, we are mostly a theological bookstore, probably the most ecumenical one on the East Coast. We define “theology” in fairly expansive terms, choosing to carry books of all sorts, from kid’s books to resources on grief, books on film and books on finance, from the work of the new poet Laureate to current events studies about the role of religion in globalization; we have books which creatively evaluate the Twilight books and books that engage the work of farmer-writer Wendell Berry. We recommend books on prayer and books on peace, confident that there is a connection.
If one is not too imaginative or has an allergy to faith-based books, I suppose our shop might seem weird. But if you love books, thoughtfully selected, creatively juxtaposed, even, displaying titles of all sorts, including those that may be a bit off the beaten path, serious and fun and beautiful, your visit to an indie bookstore will be worth your journey. For a generation reared on the glossy shelves and high end snacks at the oh-so-uniform big-box chains, it might even see like a step back in time, not unlike the jarring experience of reading a truly great book.