Reports of the bookstore’s death are greatly exaggerated. The bookstore has changed, it is true, but in its new form it remains very much alive and well. An hour in a Barnes & Noble or a Borders is time well spent. The new bookstores vary in their details, but in essentials they are much the same. I go to such places often. I find them almost as interesting as the books they sell.
The modern bookstore sells more than books. Typically there is a music and DVD department, a café, gift displays and a magazine section. I know of one that sells body lotions. This is an interesting marketing phenomenon in its own right, but what concerns us here are the books.
It is interesting to see how valuable shelf space is allocated among different types of books. Presumably this is a reflection of our book-buying habits and, therefore, of ourselves. It’s as good an approach as any for breaking down the superstore landscape into something comprehensible.
Current Affairs (18 shelves) clamors for our attention as we pass by on our way to better things. The word that comes to mind is fear-mongering. The titles alone are enough to make a browser quicken his step: “On the Brink,” “War on the Middle Class,” “The Terror Conspiracy,” “Fiasco.” There are better books to frighten ourselves, like Stephen King’s, but we’ll get to that.
The Poetry section (32 shelves) is attractive to some readers, but alien to others. It may serve as a kind of apothecary. Depending on one’s condition, Emily Dickens may be proscribed, or e. e. cummings, or perhaps a Shakespearean sonnet. Among all sections of the bookstore, Poetry is the most revolutionary. Virile and dangerous ideas may be found in it. Current Affairs is effete by comparison. A man with a copy of Leaves of Grass in his back pocket, and the spirit to read it, is a truer patriot than a man with the entire federal legal code in his possession and an inclination to use it.
In the Business section (83 shelves) we detect an obsession with metaphors: “Who Moved My Cheese?”, “How Full is Your Bucket?”, “Blue Ocean Strategy,” “Bag the Elephant,” “Finding the Hotspots.” In my experience, such colorful indirection in a title usually masks the vacuity of the pages within. Incredibly, these titles are for the smarter set. The rest of us dummies can select from a whole series of business books: “Grant Writing for Dummies,” “Six Sigma for Dummies,” “Stock Investing for Dummies,” and so on. I hate the ” for Dummies” series. We are not dummies. Why buy a book that insults us before we even open it?
Fleeing such trivialities, we come to the Biography section (42 shelves). Done well, biography and autobiography are fine literary genres, true art forms worthy of the name. Here we may read the compelling lives of many worthies, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Harry Truman, John Adams, Che Guevara and George W. Bush. In the Biography section we may observe how wonderfully various we humans are. But to understand what a true man, a great man, a man’s man is, read “The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant.” Now that’s true grit.
And then we come to the heart and soul of the bookstore, by far the largest section, and my personal favorite. Fiction (376 shelves), or Literature as I prefer to call it, even though most of it isn’t, contains more truth than any other section of the store.
Good literature is one of the greatest bargains available to the consumer. For about the price of a hamburger dinner, one can take home some of civilization’s treasures. Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is $3.95. Proust’s “Swann’s Way” is just $9. Dickens’ “Bleak House” and Melville’s “Moby Dick” are both $9.95. And get this — I can still hardly believe it — Boswell’s “Life of Johnson,” handsomely bound, is only $18. Such works are for sale among the effluvia of the horrors we call shopping malls, like pearls in the flotsam. It is a wonder they do not fly off their shelves.
A walk through the Literature section yields no end to interesting observations. For instance, there are five different editions of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” to choose from. The first author in the Fiction section is Elizabeth Adler, and the last is Irene Zutell. The most enticing single column of shelves, for me anyway, is in the ‘C’ section, where we find Camus (“The Plague”), Willa Cather (“My Antonia”), and Truman Capote (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) cheek-by-jowl. Now there’s an invitation list for an interesting cocktail party!
Two entire shelves are devoted to John Grisham’s novels, but just one to Hemingway’s. Dickens necessarily gets two and a half, because he wrote such great books. Danielle Steele gets one and a half shelves, and Tolstoy (“War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina”), gets three-quarters of a shelf. But the monarch of shelf space is Stephen King, coming in at no less than five full shelves! He earned it, I suppose. I once heard that his annual royalty income was over $40 million.
In the Fiction section we find all the writers we love, and yet there are hundreds more for us to discover. It is a wonder of riches. Shelf after shelf, aisle after aisle, we may wander, thunderstruck, as if we had stumbled into Solomon’s trove.
We may miss the old-style bookstores, particularly the ones that sold used books. There are still a few left, mostly around Concord and Cambridge. But the superstore phenomenon, which has so dehumanized the shopping experience in most other areas, retains a redeeming value. Books cannot be robbed of their warmth like lumber, sweaters and digital cameras.
To the modern reader with a car and a $20 bill, today’s bookstores offer real advantages. Right in the heart of Nashua or Burlington, where all else is vapid, one can find solid ground. In a bookstore one can find wisdom and art and a relative sense of peace. Today’s shoes and computers will soon be dated and discarded, but not so the book, and not so the bookstore.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenage children. Chris can be contacted at email@example.com.