An Ode to Good Bookstores
“It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other, and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterward in the hope of being in paradise again.”Jeff Deutsch, In Praise of Good Bookstores, 58
In Praise of Good Bookstores published in April 2022 by Princeton University Press explores the important social-cultural role of the local bookstore. While it appears on the surface to follow the usual mold of commerce where inventory is stocked, sold at a profit and stocked again, the local bookstore, beyond this veneer, is a markedly different animal.
The store goes beyond a commodity sold. Deutsch runs the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Chicago, the first-ever non-profit bookstore that exclusively sells books. In his book, Deutsch distinguishes between “the economy of the gift” and the “economy of the commodity.” Most booksellers, cannot turn a great profit, or sometimes any profit at all, unless they stock their shelves with bookmarks, socks, notebooks, calendars and the like, alongside books.
Books are expensive to produce and so the profit margin is relatively small.
It seems natural that large-scale booksellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon exist. Buying in bulk means being able to sell at a discount. Selling books marked 30% off shifts the buyer’s perception of the value of the book.
Our perceptions further shifted when Amazon, the unavoidable elephant in the world of bookselling, shifted books to a loss leader, intentionally taking a loss on their sales to attract traffic towards more profitable items.
Add inflation. Add the higher cost of living. Add all the things that make us shudder at spending $14.99. We order, we reserve, and we’ve lost the art of browsing.
A necessary art
When browsing we slow down, meander the stacks and discover something unexpected. The art of the bookseller is stocking one or two copies of different titles and organizing them for that serendipitous find. The shelves cannot hold everything. The best bookseller will have a mix of new and old, cutting-edge and classic. The best bookseller stocks curated shelves.
Before there was Lightly Used Books, our only local, secular bookstore was Yesterday’s Books. I was in junior high when my father began taking me there.
In college, friends and I looked for low-cost destinations. For that, there were bookstores, and so I dated my husband and Yesterday’s Books. I told this to Paula Kiss, the woman who has owned Yesterdays Books for nearly 15 years. After working there for 17 years, she purchased it from Larry and Kathleen Dorman, the original owners.
On October 26, 2022, Kiss informed the public that she has decided to close Yesterday’s Books, a result of rising operating costs and lost sales that never returned to pre-Covid levels. Immediately, “overwhelming loving” responses of “shock and sadness” poured in, which Kiss said she is ‘hoarding those little stories like a dragon horse their jewels.”
Through social media comments, emails and in-person conversations people are sharing those stories with her. One patron told Kiss how she and her daughter would come in, shut their eyes and pick a book at random to purchase. Kiss never met them before hearing this story, but remembers seeing them in the act more than once.
The closure of Yesterday’s Books, one of the few books stores left in Stanislaus County, is a loss to the community.
When asked what Kiss thinks a bookstore brings to the community, she responded at first by saying, “everything.”
“We have generations of people that come. I have people telling me, ‘this is where I would come, when I was feeling anxiety, feeling stressed because it was calm, and I could come and sit and, get lost in the stacks.’” Kiss continued, “I think books are friends.”
Kiss sees a community bookstore as a safe space, a source of friendship and love.
How can we ensure these spaces are not lost in our community?
I propose, just by making the drive. It’s easier to order online. It’s easier to order used online than ever. But when we drive to our local bookshop, browse the stacks and stay a while, we slow down, contemplate, and discover. It’s an art that we need more in life, where the stacks are low and the rewards are high. It’s healing, it’s creative, and it builds relationships.
We may not be able to save Yesterday’s Books. But if you have a story, reach out to Kiss and share it with her.
When you visit a new town, see if there is a bookstore you can visit and make a purchase.
Consider shopping locally before online.