Yesterday I talked about the particular ways returning to a place I used to live can be unsettling. But I'll note that in all those feelings of displacement there's been very few actual disappointments. In fact, aside from leaving behind our favorite pizza joint, there's really only been one. But it's a big one: where are the bookstores?
As far as I've been able to determine, there are only two within easy distance: the local shop downtown that's been there forever (established 1841) and a smallish (as big box stores go) Borders in the mall. Both would do as places to procure books (either will order for you most anything in print), but neither is a good browsing bookshop. Borders is too impersonal (an attribute that is far from common to all such large, big-business stores--I find Barnes and Noble to be very inviting) and the depth of their stock is abysmal. The local independent also has a (very) limited selection, but that could be excused in the name of supporting local business and local color. If only the shop were at all inviting. But whenever I go in there, I feel closed in by its cramped layout and pick up a subtle suggestion that the staff would just as soon I not hang about too long.
Yesterday, the prospects for impromptu book-browsing in Billport appeared dim. Today, they are positively depressing. Borders is closing all of its stores in the fall. I wasn't thrilled with that Borders in the mall, but it was at least a place to browse for books. And it made a lovely last stop in a stroll around the mall. I can only hope that a B&N (or even a Books-A-Million) might take over their premises.
I grew up with slim, but adequate, bookstore options. In my early and pre-teen years, there was the Paperback Booksmith in the mall and the book department in the Globe. Later there was the independent in town and Walden and B. Dalton stores in the mall. A big, stand-alone Borders did come to the parking lot near the old mall (somewhat surprisingly, it took over the building from a movie theater), but that was later, when I was about ready to leave for college. I did my book-browsing in the library during college and my masters degree (no funds), so the lack of great bookstores around me didn't matter so much then. My apartment in Knoxville was a five-minute drive from both a Borders and a Barnes and Noble, with another Borders a bit further a field. A local independent sat a few blocks from campus, and there was McKay's, a wonderful, brilliantly-organized used bookstore filling a warehouse-sized space. We were a two-minute drive from a Barnes and Noble in Roanoke, with another one at the mall, and a ten-minute drive from a local independent with a good selection of fiction and nonfiction, a nice mysteries room, and a brilliant children's and young adult wing. There was a Books-A-Million, a good used bookshop in the historic part of town, and a so-so paperback-swap type of used shop as well.
M and I have a fair amount of books. They would not rival the collections of some of the most serious readers and collectors of books, but most people who visit us, even those who are readers and book-people themselves, find the number of books in our possession to be impressive. Our collection numbers slightly shy of two thousand books, and we are always getting more. But we are not getting more at the rate that might be suggested by my preoccupation with bookshops. And in the last eight months or so, we've been trying to limit our book-buying a bit in order to save some money for the move. We've been going to the library more and making impulse-buys at bookstores less.
But the thing is, we don't go to bookstores just to buy books. If we did, the local bookshop downtown would serve our needs perfectly. If what we wanted wasn't on the shelves, we'd ask them to order it. Done and done. For that matter, if all we wanted to do was get a book, amazon or any other book website would do just fine. But we go to bookshops to go to bookshops. We go to be in the company of the books, to see what's newly come out, to explore the possibilities for future reading, even if we aren't in the market for book-buying that day. We browse. We have an outing. This is my pleasure a bit more than M's--I suspect he will miss it less than I will. Book-browsing is what I do when I want to get out of the apartment, when I get into a funk with what I'm reading, when my soul gets damp and drizzly and November-y. It isn't retail therapy, exactly, because buying something isn't necessary. It's the experience more than walking out of the shop with a new book that is the thing. (Though a new book doesn't hurt.)
And that is why the notion of only one, not-very-satisfying bookshop in town is so depressing and disappointing. I'm not worried about being unable to get books. I'm wondering what I'll do, where I'll go, when I feel like knocking people's hats off in the streets.