Off the Shelf

My girlfriend says it is like watching a kid in a candy store when we visit a book store. I suddenly appear to have multiple arms, like a Hindu deity, and my stride becomes a purposeful lurch.

Any purpose to my stride can be attributed to my knowing that she is not much of a fan of shopping at all, and less of a fan of browsing, of idling, in a store whose shelves are taller than six feet and could crush us.

Lucky for her, there is only one bookstore in the county we reside in (2010 population 372,813), which is unlucky for the residents of the county we reside in. It is a terrible indictment of American commerce and American education that a county with a third of a million people has one bookstore. And it is a small-size edition of a big-box chain store whose name almost rhymes with “Barns and No Bell.” (It is the last major bookstore brand in the country.) There are no independent booksellers in the county we live in. There are fewer and fewer independent booksellers in the entire country: only 1500 exist in the United States. According to some articles, including one in Slate in 2014, independent bookstores are making a comeback. This may be so, but 1500 of anything in a nation of 300 million strikes me as incredibly scarce.

I spent the 1990s employed at an independent bookseller. (And what is the difference between the terms “bookstore” and “bookseller”? The owner of the bookseller in which I worked explained to any employee who made the mistake of answering the phone in his presence with a cheery, “Such-and-So Bookstore, how can I help you?”—in other words, me on my first day there: “We are not in the business of storing books.” His eyes flared.)

An independent bookseller is not a part of a chain of stores, is not owned by a big corporation. I loved working in a building full of books, for a locally-owned business that was a part of the community, but I hated working for anyone. (I am a hard worker and a good employee, except for the whole “being an employee” part.) When one works for people who started their own business (I have seen this in multiple retail establishments and at a couple of family-owned newspapers), one has a difficult time impressing the owners with one’s dedication, as they were so dedicated that they started the darn thing in the first place.

Some independent-owned booksellers can be very large and successful: the Strand in New York City, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, the Tattered Cover in Denver. The bookseller that I worked for closed in 2006 after 35 years in business, which is a statement that brings the happy and the sad right next to one another. It was a great run, but it ended.

I still dream that I am working there, 15 years after I left. I still dream that I am browsing in a crowded store in the first mall that I used to bike to, South Hills Mall in Poughkeepsie. The store was one of a chain that was called “Book & Record,” and it did not sell many of either, which may explain its current status as a dead store from the ’70s that no one but me remembers. The mall itself has been demolished. But the experience of being eight years old and losing myself in the one shelf of books or the one rack of records that Book & Record deigned to display among its offerings of almost anything except books & records, that experience of daydreaming about reading (something like daydreaming about having the chance to get around to daydreaming someday, which is a wonderful daydream), that daydream is what my girlfriend sees re-enacted in my her boyfriend whenever we stride into the last bookseller in our county.

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This first appeared in September.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for March 17 asks us to reflect on the word, “Shelf.”

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