This one time, about four years ago, I wrote a poem about second hand bookshops. It was only four lines long. I left it in a hotel somewhere. I think it slipped down the side of the bed and was forgotten in the last minute panic of catching an early morning flight. It was, quite fortunately, the last poem I ever wrote and though I can’t recall exactly what it said, I know, for sure it was about bookstores and how I am much more comfortable in the company of high-stacked books and journals than I have ever been in church. I half meant it. I’m not a church hater by any means but I have always felt a strange, almost religious kind of comfort, in the presence of books. I know what to do in a bookstore, how to act and what to say, where to go for humour or pathos or wry travel advice on negotiating European cities. I am among my own kind in bookstores and more likely to linger in their well-papered aisles than anywhere else on the planet.
Chief amongst my independent bookstore crushes is Powell’s of Portland, Oregon. It is not just a book store. It is a city of books; one block wide and three storeys high with shelves which require wheeled steps to access their upper echelons. It has staff members who know their shit, (specifically and within particular genres), when it comes to books. It has a hot concrete and cardboard aroma all of its own which, when first encountered upon entry, renders me utterly incapable of maintaining my “just look, don’t buy” policy. It has book-themed stationary and accessories and a better class of literary-based graffiti in the ladies’ bathroom. It is where I first heard Greil Marcus, Jonathan Safran Foer and Douglas Coupland read, (though the latter left me with no desire whatsoever to repeat the experience). I edited my first novel in the coffee shop at Powell’s and wrote part of my second in full view of the romance section. It’s fair to say I’m reasonably fond of the place.
As we all know there are very few independent book stores left in the world. The book selling industry is increasingly corporate, nasty and electronic. Whilst most people appreciate the service and experience offered by bookstores like Powell’s and our own wonderful, No Alibis in Belfast, ridiculous price undercuts from online retailers mean, more often than not the average customer choses low cost over a lovely book buying experience. As I traipsed around the aisles of Powell’s tonight trying, and ultimately failing, not to spend any money, (or more importantly increase my excess baggage situation), I thought about why independent book stores are so important. Yes, it’s vital that authors are properly supported financially and the little writers don’t get lost in the avalanche of corporate consumerism and yes, it’s wonderful that independent stores like Powell’s allow readers firsthand access to writers as they read from their own work and yes, of course, (a hundred times and more), everyone deserves to buy their books off informed booksellers who will say things such as “great choice” and “surely you must know more about Bob Dylan than anyone else in the Western world” whilst bagging their purchases.
However, more than any other reason we need to hold on to our independent bookstores because, (British library aside), they are the only places on earth which poke the reader in me, squarely in the eye and insist I read every book ever written, immediately, with scant regard for other responsibilities. Good bookstores make for good readers and we need to hold on to them while we still can.