Libraries and local bookstores

While browsing through books at a local used bookstore here in San Francisco (Dog Eared books on Valencia Street), I came across a zine called “How to resist Amazon”.

Zine by the owner of Raven Bookstore

A zine, in case you’ve not heard of these before, “is a small circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images, usually reproduced via a copy machine. Zines are the product of either a single person or of a very small group, and are popularly photocopied into physical prints for circulation.” – Wikipedia

The title was intriguing enough that I picked it up and read through most of it right there in the store. The author talks about the impact that Amazon has had on the margins of small bookstores, putting many out of business and threatening the ones that are remaining. It talks about how Amazon has made customers accustomed to books costing cheaper than they should, making the business of running a physical bookstore very hard.

Now full disclaimer – I use Amazon all the time for ordering almost everything I need, including books. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and it allows me to get whatever I want in just a few clicks. I don’t think this zine will make me abandon Amazon by any means.

That said, it did make me wonder about the value of physical bookstores, especially the small local kinds that tend to curate their collections, have their own quirky personalities, and provide a unique experience that is so different from shopping for books online. The same can be said about physical libraries too.

Courtesy: Flickr Creative Commons

Some of the best books I’ve read have been serendipitous discoveries, made during the process of walking down the aisles of a library or a used bookstore. I hadn’t heard about these books before. They hadn’t been recommended to me by anyone else. They were not on NY Times bestseller lists, and a few had been published many decades ago and were now long forgotten. And yet, something about the books’ title, cover, spine and my own mindset and context made me pick up the book, flip through the pages, and decide to give it a go. The unexpected discovery of a great book made my reading all the more pleasurable. There are so many books that I’ve discovered “accidentally” in libraries, that have turned out to be incredible gems. Here are some of them, to name a few:

  1. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  2. Rare Books Uncovered by Rebecca Barry
  3. Eat & Run by Scott Jurek
  4. Grimm’s Fairy Tales – published many decades ago and so it still has content that was considered too violent in later years and then removed
  5. Steinbeck – A Life in Letters
  6. The Greatest Salesman in the World – Og Mandino
  7. Cordon Bleu Cook Book by Dione Lucas
  8. Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  9. The Will to Climb – Ed Viesturs
  10. I am a Strange Loop – Douglas R. Hofstadter

The only reason I’ve read these books is because I chanced upon them by accident, not because I was looking for them specifically. Until virtual reality becomes a reality and a part of our everyday life, it is hard for the online shopping experience to provide this same serendipity that you get in a physical bookstore or a library. You can see rows and rows of books stacked all around you. The librarian or the store owner might often leave notes and reviews for books they highly recommend. You get to discover entirely new genres and sub-genres. You can pick up books and enjoy their tactile feel. Not to mention the personality of the store itself – they might have creaking wooden floors, shelves bending over with the weight of the books, small stools and chairs places in nooks and corners to allow patrons to not only shop but even read inside the store. The physical store and library give you a sense of being surrounded by knowledge and learning, and invite you to immerse yourself in this environment.

Neil Gaiman talks about libraries in his essay “Why our future depends upon Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” – “A library is a place that is a repository of, and gives every citizen equal access to, information. That includes heath information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.”

Neil Gaiman

As much as I like Amazon, I would hate it if my local bookstores and libraries shut down. One of my favorite weekend pastimes is to spend time in bookstores and libraries (I’ve missed them sorely during the shutdown in this pandemic). To that end, I still try and buy from used book stores whenever I can. I’m also looking for ways in which I can support local book stores and libraries.

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