It is not news any longer that the last bookstore in Laredo, Texas has closed, leaving over 250,000 residents with a trip of over 150 miles to the next place to purchase a paperback to carry in a saddlebag. It is true that the public library remains open but even those brave and blessed guardians of books and civil rights, librarians, have admitted that they cannot provide all of the recently published volumes that readers are looking for.
I don't know what the bookstore in Laredo was like but I was saddened by the loss of our little local bookstore here in Riverdale in the Bronx when it closed shop last year. Of course I have access to bookstores large and small throughout the city and the Riverdale shop was not my favorite. It was, however, walking distance from my house, convenient to a coffee shop, a bakery and a gelato place. A Saturday stroll could include all three and depending on how good the book was that I picked up, I could even stop at the Irish pub before getting home. Pretty good, huh?
I choose not to compare bookstores and libraries here. The differences are great and deserve some detailed reflection. I will note that a public library that works is a sacred space and like any church, temple, or cathedral can satisfy the soul, quiet a racing mind or heart, and provide a vision of beauty and art that are clouded by daily routine. I will also note that the public library in Fayetteville, Arkansas should receive the Kennedy Center medal or the equivalent for what it provides and how it promotes community and citizenship. I must also note that the public library in Penfield, New York helped my wife and me raise our children and stay relatively sane at the same time.
Bookstores are public places, places of commerce and social gathering. They are something other than sacred and must live and die by the dynamics of profit and loss. They must provide customers what they want as much as what they need, and they need to be located where customers, not always readers, will find them convenient for short or long-term visits.
A successful bookstore can be huge, or tiny. It can have private spaces, nooks and crannies or can be open and spacious. I offer no formula for what makes a bookstore good or bad. I do know, usually within a few minutes, if I like a bookstore or not. It takes me only a little longer to determine how a bookstore ranks in my collective bookstore memory. The best bookstores, like the best wines, often grow in my estimation, either over the course of a few visits or over a longer period of time as I visit at different times of years, carrying different moods with me, encountering different writers, different stories and different discoveries.
I spent this last weekend in Portland, Oregon, attending the wedding of our friend's daughter. After two days of ceremony, festivities, and brunch, PYZ and I had an entire Sunday afternoon to become acquainted with the famous Powells City of Books. At first glance, the boxy block-long structure, bright lights, and movie marquee sign did not signal the kind of setting I associate with a bookish afternoon. The inventory was of course huge (they do an impressive online business as well) and it is recommended that one refer to the map provided to avoid becoming lost. Having assured myself that I could be in touch with PYZ by cellphone, I ignored the map, happy to roam through the warren of sections, subsections, and subsubsections .
Among other qualities, Powell's carries and displays together a stock of both used and new books. It also has the same book located in different sections to the delight of a customer like me who is really just wandering, waiting for discovery. It has sophisticated and helpful notes on books of special interest. Signs directing the customer to other areas of the store where they can find other books by the same authors are very helpful as well.
This bookstore grew on me as I spent the day and I realized that, as when wine is opened and exposed to the air, and one begins to taste subtle flavors and aromas, new qualities, and a different balance of tastes, exposure to a store this bold and complex would change as I was exposed to more of it and its customers. It occurred to me that what was very special about Powell's was not its size, its collection, its map, its range, or its service. It was in fact the community of readers, shoppers, and visitors who were there. The store was filled with an entertaining variety of people. There were old geezers like me, fathers and mothers, tattooed youth, teenagers, quiet children, noisy children, people in need of a mystery, people studying Wheelock's Latin, authors (no doubt) looking for inspiration or checking out the competition. There were patient browsers, quick drop-ins, nearly-residents, tourists, teachers, and many others, all spending Sunday afternoon together. We had convened in a place that brought together stories, illustrations, poetry, instruction, fantasy, diversion, escape, whimsy, and spirituality of all kinds. We visitors brought our lives into the common space where we all shared a common experience. We each left with something added to our lives. Success for a bookstore depends on the quality of its product, its selection, its marketing and management but its identity is the daily creation of the community that it feeds.
As with wine, terroir is the vital element, one that is not always understood or appreciated. Every wine is not only the creation of the grower, the winemaker, the bottler or the marketer. It is really a product of the grape that it is made from. The grape is a living thing that is nurtured by the sun, the climate, the soil, the elevation, the water, all of which are unique to a place. Bookstores, too, have a terroir. The same books are available throughout the country and throughout the world. There are variations on how they are displayed, organized, and selected for inclusion in inventory. The terroir of bookstores is in who visits them, why they are there, what their lives are like, what their reading lives and interests are like and what relationships, personal and literary, they bring with them. No two bookstores, even in the same town, can be exactly the same. Differences can be profound or minute. Travel is illuminating because the bookstore terroir is very apparent, especially on an initial visit. The west coast Oregon literary community, for example, was dramatically visible in my afternoon at Powell's. I immediately drew comparisons to Seattle's Elliott Bay Bookstore, and contrasts to the Barnes and Noble at Union Square in NYC.
So, in Laredo, Texas, lots of young cowboys and cowgirls will visit the library, I hope. So will the parents, the students, the writers, the seekers, the thinkers. They will not have a place, however, that provides them and visitors with a marketplace for their reading experiences, where they browse, and shop, and together create a reading community that is their own, to be enjoyed and shared, one which they will take with them when they visit other places. Let's hope that new economic growth, and new technology, protect and nurture the literary agora that includes local bookstores. Let's hope that a new entrepreneur will want to take up the challenge of serving, and creating, a literary marketplace in all of the Laredos we know, including Johnson Avenue in Riverdale, New York.